Animal Welfare Or Animal Rights? Dismantling a False Opposition
An Animal Rights Article from


Dr. Steve Best
September 2011

The problem is not with reform, but with reform as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end of animal liberation. If we maintain a clear realization that our ultimate goal is animal liberation and the end of vivisection, factory farms, slaughterhouses, animal entertainment industries, and the like, we can work toward changing the root causes while simultaneously making immediate reforms. Indeed, as we win achievable reforms, we empower our movement and energize our base to keep struggle for the long-term goals, whereas abstract purism is a sure road to ineffectiveness and despair.

It is vividly evident that our society is in the process of dramatically changing its views toward animals. The signs are everywhere. The behaviorist doctrine that animals don’t have complex minds and feelings has been refuted through an avalanche of scientific studies and groundbreaking research, leading to a revolution in the way people think about both them and us. “Animals Rights and the Law” courses are being taught at prestigious universities such as Harvard. One prominent professor who teaches the Harvard course, Steven Wise, received national attention last year and was widely interviewed on radio and TV. Rutgers University created the nation’s first center to teach animal rights law and prepare lawyers to defend the interests of nonhuman species.

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, now holds a chair of bioethics at Princeton University, as other professors hold academic chairs in animal welfare throughout the world. A new field of “Animal Studies” is emerging in academia to take its place side-by-side with African-American, Chicano, Gay and Lesbian, Women’s, and Environmental Studies, thus introducing countless students to a new consciousness. Journals such as Animal Issues, Society and Animals, and Between the Species have emerged, along with various conferences, to offer forums for the exchange of ideas. Using the materials written and collected by philosopher Tom Regan, North Carolina State University created the first animal rights annals ever included in a university’s permanent document collection.

Across the country, there is a movement to upgrade abuse of domestic animals from a mere misdemeanor to a felony crime – a law that just went into effect in Texas in September 2001. In 1999, President Clinton signed into law legislation banning “crush videos” (featuring women in spiked heels crushing a small animal to death) that set a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone profiting from interstate sale of depictions of animal cruelty, thereby elevating animal abuse concerns to the presidential level. Books such as Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse (1997) have thrown a national spotlight on the horrifying suffering animals undergo on their way to the human dinner plate. In May 2000, using footage shot with a hidden camera by the Humane Farming Association, Seattle’s King TV station and site featured graphic evidence of animals being dismembered while still conscious. This gruesome evil violates the Humane Slaughter Act passed in Congress in 1958, which requires that an animal be unconscious before being killed. In April 2001, The Washington Post wrote a powerful two-part expose – “They Die, Piece By Piece” -- about illegal slaughterhouse horrors.

In October 2000, in response to intense pressure from animal rights activists, the USDA agreed to expand its biomedical regulations to include mice, rats and birds for the first time – although this was sharply contested by the vivisection industry and is still pending. At the same time, the European Commission announced they would end the use of battery cages – endless rows of cramped enclosures used to maximally exploit egg production – by 2012. A critical mass of change was reached in October 2001 as the U.S. House of Representatives passed four animal protection amendments to H.R. 2646, The Farm Security Act of 2001. These amendments – awaiting a vote by the Senate – would prohibit stockyards and other markets from transferring and selling downed animals who cannot walk because of illness or injury; close the loophole that allows interstate shipment of fighting birds from states where it is illegal to any of the three states (including New Mexico) where it is still legal; ban the export of fighting birds and dogs and increase penalties for violating sections of the Animal Welfare Act; and strongly enforce the Humane Slaughter Act.

In July 2001, Senator Joseph Byrd gave an unprecedented speech on the Senate floor that eloquently and passionately defended the value of all animals from the evils of human abusers, as he even condemned “our inhumane treatment of livestock" in the strongest terms and galvanized the Senate to approve $3 million for the Department of Agriculture to bolster enforcement of humane slaughter laws and research ways to lessen animal suffering. In the words of Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, “Never has a senator taken to the floor like this, and nobody of his stature has ever said these things.”

These are only some of the indicators that we are in the midst of a collective paradigm shift, one that no longer views animals as dumb beasts or insensate objects for human use, but rather as thinking and feeling beings whose interests are morally significant. Clearly, we have a long way to go until the sundry and sordid forms of violence against animals stops. Abominations such as circuses, rodeos, zoos, hunting, vivisection, and slaughterhouses persist. Every year in the U.S. alone, 40 million animals are trapped, gassed, clubbed, and electrocuted for their fur; up to 100 million die in experimental laboratories, and nearly 10 billion animals are killed for meat consumption. Human ignorance and insensitivity toward animals is not about to become obsolete anytime soon.

So we live within a conflicted and uneven situation where ancient prejudices against animals persist, but change and moral progress is nonetheless evident. Some of the most significant changes relate to the treatment of farm animals. In August, 2000, McDonald’s wrote the farmers who supply them with 1.5 billion eggs yearly that they must begin treating the hens more humanely, and they outlined strict new regulations for raising hens. The guidelines require 50% more space for each caged hen, banned the practice of “forced molting” that withholds food and water to stimulate egg production, and required a phasing out of the barbaric “debeaking” process that cuts the beaks of baby chicks off to prevent destructive pecking within the cramped battery cages. Further, McDonald’s told the egg companies that it will audit them to ensure compliance. The same year, United Egg Producers announced they would phase out forced molting – a cruel practice that starves hens for up to two weeks to trick their bodies into another laying cycle -- and the American Humane Association initiated a Free Farmed certificate program that would award labels to companies that met AHA welfare standards. In 2001, following the lead of McDonald’s both Burger King and Wendy’s announced that they too would use bigger cages for laying hens and stop forced molting.

PETA Power

In the case of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s, the astute person realizes that they did not make these changes voluntarily, but rather were dragged kicking and screaming to the bargaining table and only made concessions when their public image was sufficiently bruised. Specifically, PETA was the leading force in coercing all three fast food giants into reforming the unconscionable practices of their suppliers. While a number of PETA campaigns have proved unpopular with both the media and the animal rights community – such as their “Got Beer?” and “Eat the Whales” fiascoes – there is no question they are often highly effective in defending animal rights, such as evident in their recent attacks on fast food chains.

PETA’s campaign against the Big 3 began in July 1997 when they wrote to the CEO of McDonald’s and demanded significant reforms in their treatment of farm animals. PETA’s strike followed on the heels of an 80 page verdict by Chief Justice Roger Bell of the British High Court in London during the famous “McLibel” trial that found McDonald’s “culpably responsible” for cruelties in the raising of broiler chickens, laying hens, and pigs.

The abominations inflicted on animals raised for McDonald’s -- standard practices for modern factory farms and slaughterhouses – include: chickens crammed into cages inside filthy warehouses, with each bird having less space to stand than a standard size sheet of paper and suffering injuries and broken bones when grabbed for slaughter; pigs raised in cement stalls so small they can not turn around; and inadequate stunning at the slaughterhouse such that at least 1 in 20 animals are dismembered while fully conscious.

With Ray Kroc’s Evil Empire on the ropes, PETA seized the initiative and began making demands on McDonald’s to significantly improve their treatment of farm animals. PETA demanded that McDonald’s:

(1) meet minimum standards recommended by the USDA and provide chickens at least one and one-half square feet of living space;

(2) cease selling eggs from factory-farmed hens;

(3) mandate improved standards for chicken transport and slaughter;

(4) abolish the use of genetically altered birds that suffer painful leg deformities;

(5) buy pigs only from farms that do not confine them in cramped cement stalls and provide breeding sows with room to move around outdoors;

debeak2.jpg (8410 bytes)(6) Stop buying from suppliers who debeak hens; (photo-left)

(7) ensure that animals are properly stunned before being killed;

(8) humanely euthanize “downer” animals who arrive at the slaughterhouse severely injured, rather than tossing them into a “dead pile” to be processed into food with the other animals; and

(9) include a vegetarian burger at all U.S. restaurants.

For two frustrating years PETA was involved in constant negotiations with McDonald’s by way of letters, phone calls, and appearances at their shareholder meetings. They worked with Dr. Temple Grandin, a noted expert in ameliorating the suffering of factory farmed animals, who suggested McDonald’s suppliers slow down the speed of the killing line, have two people stunning the animals to insure they are unconscious before slaughter, and implement unannounced audits of their suppliers. PETA gave McDonald’s every opportunity to become a leading force in addressing animal welfare issues, but after seeing no commitment to major reform and sensing that McDonald’s was interested only in staging a public relations ploy, PETA unleashed a full-scale assault on the company on August 12, 1999. PETA organized 400 demonstrations in 23 countries and over 300 cities. They distributed leaflets, posters, and stickers, with graphic pictures of slaughtered animals and biting parodies of McDonald’s slogan such as “Animals Deserve a Break Today” and “McDonalds. Cruelty to go.” Most provocatively, at schools across the globe PETA passed out “Unhappy Meals” – colorful cardboard lunch boxes containing information about how animals are raised and slaughtered. PETA made it vividly clear that McDonald’s -- a company with $36 billion dollars in gross annual revenues! -- did not care enough about animals to alleviate their unimaginable sufferings by any measure or, indeed, to obey the “humane slaughter” law.

In June 2000, PETA acknowledged McDonald’s had made some improvements in terms of better cattle stunning, handling of chickens, and implementation of audits, but had still not addressed most of the problems raised by Justice Bell’s critique and their own demands. In August 2000, however, McDonald’s agreed to stop buying poultry products from suppliers that debeak chickens, provide less than 72 square inches per bird, and uses forced molting to increase egg production. PETA applauded this measure but held out for more reforms and continued their campaign. Finally, in September 2000, McDonald’s pig-gestcrate07.jpg (10331 bytes)committed to more substantive reforms: they increased the cage size of laying hens, eliminated debeaking, ceased forced molting, called for more humane methods of catching chickens, and began to audit slaughterhouses and cut off suppliers who do not comply with “humane slaughter” standards. Consequently, PETA announced a two-year moratorium on all protests against McDonald’s. While commending them on the steps taken, PETA insisted much more needed to be done, and they outlined additional needed reforms such as refusing purchases from farms that confine sows (photo-left), selling only free range chickens, improving slaughtering methods, and rigorously upgrading slaughterhouse inspections. If their demands are not met by September 1, 2002, PETA vowed to renew their campaign, Unhappy Meals and all.

After their declared “victory” with McDonald’s, who was setting industry standards for others to follow, PETA next set Burger King and Wendy’s in their crosshairs. They made the same demands and achieved the same results. Importantly, Burger King and Wendy’s have also agreed to announce inspections of their suppliers and to sever ties with any found in violation of legal standards. As the goal of each campaign took increasingly less time and effort to realize, it is clear that PETA has become a force to reckon with and a major vehicle of reform in the food industry. They presently are encouraging McDonald’s to internationalize their U.S. standards, and are choosing their next targets, which likely will include additional fast-food chains such as chicken and pizza outlets, as well as major stores such as Wal-Mart and Albertson’s.

Victories or Betrayals?

After three successive campaigns against the fast food giants, PETA claimed a series of “victories” that promoted reforms in the ways farm animals are confined, treated, shipped, and slaughtered. All three claimed that they made the changes on their own will and conscience, and that PETA played no part in their decision, but the evidence of PETA’s leading role is documented in their letters with the companies and it is clear none of them would have made reforms if not for the constant pressure and publicity nightmare PETA inflicted on them. No other animal rights group played as active a role in the changes.

But the “victories” won by PETA re-ignited a long-standing debate within the animal rights community between those advocating improved “animal welfare” and those urging “animal rights” and the abolition of the animal exploitation industries. What on earth, one might well ask, is the world’s leading animal rights group doing helping industries to refine their methods of raising and killing animals, when PETA should be working instead to shut them down? Instead of demanding bigger cages, isn’t the goal the abolition of cages? Are PETA “sell-outs,” “backstabbers,” and lousy “reformists” who have betrayed the nature of animal rights, as their critics have claimed, or are their opponents aloof purists, prisoners to principles, who would block immediate reforms to reduce animal suffering for distant and perhaps unrealizable goals of “animal liberation” and a predominantly vegan world. Has PETA legitimated meat industries and meat eating by putting their seal of approval on animal products, assuaging what little guilt existed in the carnivorous public, or have they made gains no other organization has yet been able to realize? Have their campaigns been “the biggest step forward for farm animals in America …since 1975, when Animal Liberation was published,” in the words of the book’s author, Peter Singer, or rather just “further proof that PETA has become nothing but an organizational pimp for major corporate exploiters” as the Friends of Animals group claims?

To put it another way: are we struggling for animal welfare or animal rights, reforms or revolution? According to activists on a national animal rights list, “Animal welfarists are the enemy of animals everywhere” and “the new welfarists are entrenching animal abuse in our culture.” Against this kind of simplistic mindset, I suggest that the welfare/rights and reform/revolution oppositions are false, and that framing the issue in terms of incompatible choices is crippling. To abandon the project of reform is to turn our back on the unimaginable present sufferings of farm animals as we hobble toward a vague utopian future of total animal liberation, a vision that may never be realized. The purism that condemns reforms typically has no alternative vision for accomplishing the goal of animal liberation. Conversely, reforms have their own drawbacks and dangers, and the challenge is not to struggle exclusively for reform or liberation, but how to mediate these two goals to end all industries of animal exploitation, the food industry above all.

Animal Welfare and Animal Rights

As long as human beings have evinced concern for the suffering of animals and worked toward its reduction, animal welfare philosophy has been part of our culture. Such concerns are interwoven throughout the Western tradition, part and parcel with callousness toward animals, and are at the ethical core of ancient Eastern religions. The concept of animal rights, clearly, could not have emerged until the notion of human rights was first constructed in the 17th century, and did not become central to philosophical discourse until the 20th century. While both animal welfare and rights standpoints criticize human cruelty toward animals and needless animal suffering, they diverge sharply over the moral status of animals.

Gary Francione, head of the animal rights law center at Rutgers University and author of Introduction to Animal Rights, offers a cogent discussion of the difference between welfare and rights philosophies. According to Francione, animal welfarists acknowledge that animals have interests, but they believe these can be sacrificed or traded away if there is some overridingly compelling human interest at stake. Depending on the particular welfarist, animals’ interests may be overridden for any number of reasons, ranging from human entertainment (circuses, rodeos, bullfights, cockfighting, and the like) to meat consumption to vivisection. Welfarists do not believe animals should be caused “unnecessary” pain, and hold that any suffering caused them be done “humanely.” Animal rights theorists, by contrast, reject the utilitarian premises of welfarism that allows the sacrifice of animals to some alleged greater utility or consequence. Rights theorists argue that animals’ interests cannot be sacrificed, no matter what good consequence may result (such as an alleged advance in medical knowledge). Just as we believe that it is immoral to sacrifice a human individual to a “greater good” if it improves the overall social welfare, so animal rights theorists persuasively apply the same logic to animals.

Importantly, the rights approach treats animals as individuals, as (conscious, sentient, and thinking) “persons” (not to be confused with “people”), whereas the animal welfare position -- whatever its professed degree of sentimentality -- treats animals as things or property. Indeed, the main barrier to the liberation of animals from their countless forms of exploitation is their property status and the legal claims the property holder has over them. Thus, if I liberated animals from a laboratory run by a sadistic scientist, I, not the scientist, would go to jail because I “stole” his “property.” The 10 billion animals that suffer and die in U.S. factory farms and slaughterhouses endure indescribable horror because they are the property of an evil industry that profits off their pain.

As Professor Francione argues, the lives of animals ultimately can only be protected through a shift from welfarism to rights, and the abolition of the legal system that enslaves them as property objects. “Even if we increase the weight attached to the animal interests [through welfare arguments],“ he argues, “the human property rights cannot be abrogated without a compelling justification. No animal interest is likely to be regarded as supplying that compelling interest as long as animals are regarded as the property of their owners.” Thus, for example, no matter how comfortable we could make the lives of animals in experimental laboratories, it remains exceedingly difficult at present to validate the claim that scientists and universities do not in reality “own” the animals they purchased from a laboratory animal breeding industry.

Francione correctly points out that animal rights is not an all or nothing proposition, that rights are compatible with reforms. But everything hinges on how we define reforms and link them to the ultimate aims of rights and liberation. Some approaches “offer an arguably sensible half-measure between continuing the approach of animal welfare, or beginning to chip away – peacefully and through legal means – at the morally, politically, and economically corrupt edifice that supports animal experimentation.”

For a reform to strengthen rather than weaken the goal of animal rights, Francione establishes 4 minimal conditions an acceptable regulation would have to meet:

(1) it must prohibit or end a particular form of exploitation rather than seek its amelioration through “more humane” standards;

(2) it must repudiate sacrificing or trading away an animal interest for utilitarian reasons;

(3) it must therefore be informed by the concept of the inherent value of an animal life and repudiate the reduction of the subject of a life to the object of someone’s property; and

(4) it must be accompanied by demands for the end of animal exploitation as a whole.

Francione would reject, for example, a reform measure that sought to reduce the number of animals used in chemical burn experiments, but he would embrace a Congressional law to stop funding, effectively ceasing, the use of all animals in burn experiments. This law would not by itself bring about the goal of liberating animals from all forms of exploitation, of course, but it goes far beyond mere amelioration of an exploited group in this particular case.

Similarly, Francione would not support calls such as reducing the number of laying hens in a battery cage from 6 to 2 because it is entails more “humane” treatment, without questioning the notion of hens as property or struggling to abolish the battery cage system altogether. And finally it is clear that he would not support the PETA campaign against the giant fast food corporations, as from his perspective they are merely ameliorative measures. PETA’s campaign would not satisfy conditions (1) and (2). It is important to point out, however, that it has fulfilled criteria (3) and (4), as PETA has always advocated animals have intrinsic value (“Animals are not ours to eat, wear, or experiment on” as their popular poster and bumper sticker says) and rejected the concept that animals are human property. Most importantly, unlike the American Humane Association’s Society Free Farmed certificate program, PETA has addressed the root cause of the torture and death of 10 billion farm animals every year in this country -- namely, carnivorism and consumer demand for animal flesh and bodily secretions – through campaigns to promote veganism and cruelty-free clothing and skin care products.
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Rather than being a tepid welfare group lacking the big picture or a radical and uncompromising animal rights organization, PETA employs a two-track strategy of promoting reforms while advancing the philosophy of animal rights, veganism, cruelty-free products, and the abolition of vivisection, circuses and rodeos, and other institutions of animal slavery.

Revolution Through Evolution, Evolution Through Revolution

Animal liberation clearly is a long-term struggle; in the meantime, it is imperative that we make as many improvements in the lives of animals as possible. At the same time, to heed Francione’s warnings, it is urgent that we do not become mired in only improving the current institutions of slavery and exploitation, thereby legitimating them as “humane,” and that we work toward their ultimate destruction. From weak welfarist grounds, we might win a few battles for animals currently suffering in their cages, but lose the wider war for their liberation. In the big picture, PETA’s campaign would be a failure if they accepted only reforms or got backed into a corner where they could not exert more pressure on animal food industries, and thus indeed become complicit in animal exploitation. But PETA is monitoring the Big 3 and will resume protests and I suspect will continue to rachet up the level of demand.

The problem is not with reform, but with reform as an end in itself, rather than as a means to the end of animal liberation. If we maintain a clear realization that our ultimate goal is animal liberation and the end of vivisection, factory farms, slaughterhouses, animal entertainment industries, and the like, we can work toward changing the root causes while simultaneously making immediate reforms. Indeed, as we win achievable reforms, we empower our movement and energize our base to keep struggle for the long-term goals, whereas abstract purism is a sure road to ineffectiveness and despair.

Francione’s criteria offer one way to bridge the gap between reform and revolution, welfare and rights, but in some contexts it may be too strict. The meat and dairy industries are too large, too entrenched, and animal suffering too great to warrant anything but whatever incremental strategy we can gain. The concept of “humane killing” does sound ludicrous, but not to the animals being dismembered or boiled while fully aware and conscious. The call for “bigger cages” may appear reactionary and complicit, but not to the laying hens crammed into wire prisons. Advocating the sale of veggie burgers at restaurants and fast food outlets like McDonalds is not nonsensical if ever-more Americans choose them and thus reduce their impact on animals and the environment. But, crucially, more significant gains have been won which do fulfill Francione’s criteria, specifically the abolition of forced molting and, hopefully soon, debeaking.

Beyond the immediate gains, PETA’s campaigns helped to focus a spotlight on the horrors that transpire in factory farms and slaughterhouses that previously did not exist. PETA and other groups have created an unprecedented gain: “For the first time,” United Poultry Concerns stated, the [farm] animals themselves have been declared to matter,” as opposed to the slaughterhouse workers or the environment. This is truly a momentous step, not to be undervalued from purist grounds. Rather than allowing people to feel better about eating meat, it is just as likely people were appalled by what they learned and began to eat less meat or none at all – a change PETA and other national groups continue to promote through their vegan education campaigns. Ultimately, change must come from below, from a growing movement of enlightened consumers. But the struggle to transform the consumers and the producers of meat has now become one.

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