Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter
25 September 2010 Issue

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Frequently Asked Questions About Animal Rights

The responses presented in this fact sheet are by no means the only answers to the following questions, and the questions are only part of a potentially endless list. They are presented as suggestions that can guide your thinking and give you ideas that help you formulate your own responses. We recommend that you consider our answers and incorporate the information into your own thinking.

General Questions

What do you mean by animal “rights”?
Animal rights means that animals deserve consideration of what is in their best interests—regardless of whether they are cute, useful to humans, or endangered and regardless of whether any human cares about them at all (just as a mentally challenged human has rights even if he or she is not cute, productive, or well liked). It means recognizing that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation.

What is the difference between “animal welfare” and “animal rights”?
Animal welfare theories accept that animals have interests but allow those interests to be traded away as long as there are human benefits that are thought to justify that sacrifice.

The concept of animal rights means that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. Animal welfare allows these uses as long as “humane” guidelines are followed.

The animal rights movement believes that animals, like humans, have interests that cannot be sacrificed or traded away just because it might benefit others to do so. However, the animal rights position does not hold that the rights it espouses are absolute. An animal’s rights, just like those of humans, can be limited, and the rights of various people as well as animals can certainly conflict.

What rights should animals have?
Animals have the right to consideration of their interests equal to that of any other sentient being. A dog most certainly should not be made to endure pain. We are obligated, as the advocate of that dog, to respect the dog’s right not to suffer.

Animals cannot always have the same rights as humans because their interests are not necessarily the same, and some rights are irrelevant to animals. A dog doesn’t have an interest in politics and, therefore, is not a being whose right to vote must be protected. Having that right would be as meaningless to a dog as it would be to a child.

Where do you draw the line?
As long as an animal is capable of suffering, we should do whatever we can to avoid causing that animal pain. Sometimes it isn’t possible to prevent an animal’s suffering, but just because we can’t stop all suffering, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to mitigate whatever pain we can control. Today’s world presents virtually unlimited choices, and there are kinder, gentler ways for most of us to feed, clothe, entertain, and educate ourselves than by killing animals.

What about plants?
There is no science today that supports the belief that plants experience pain—devoid as they are of central nervous systems, nerve endings, and brains. The main reason why animals have the ability to experience pain is so that they can protect themselves from harm. If you touch something that hurts you, the pain teaches you to leave it alone in the future. Since plants cannot move to escape pain and lack the mobility or processes to learn to avoid certain things, the ability to feel pain would be superfluous and evolutionarily illogical in plants.

Even if plants were able to suffer, it wouldn’t justify causing pain and distress to animals like dogs, cows, rodents, or chickens, who we know are capable of great suffering.

It’s fine for you to believe in animal rights, but how can you tell other people what to do?
We don’t try to dictate, but we understand that freedom of thought does not mean freedom of action. You are free to believe whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt others. You may believe that animals should be killed, that black people should be enslaved, or that women should be beaten, but you don’t have the right to put those beliefs into practice.

Society exists so that there will be rules governing people’s behavior. The very nature of reform movements is to tell others what to do: Don’t use humans as slaves; don’t sexually harass women; don’t abuse children, for example. Historically, all movements have encountered initial opposition from people who want to maintain the status quo.

Animals don’t reason, understand their own rights, or respect our rights, so why should we apply our ideas of morality to them?
An animal’s inability to understand and adhere to our rules is as irrelevant as that of a child or mentally challenged person. These people may not able to comprehend rules, but that does not negate the obligation of a civilized society to protect them. Animals are not always capable of choosing to change their behavior, but human beings have the intelligence to choose between behaviors that hurt others and behaviors that do not.

Where does the animal rights movement stand on abortion?
There are people on both sides of the abortion issue in the animal rights movement, just as there are people on both sides of animal rights issues in the pro-life and pro-choice movements. And just as these movements have no official position on animal rights, the animal rights movement has no official position on abortion.

It’s almost impossible to avoid using all animal products, and if you’re still contributing to animal suffering without realizing it, what’s the point?
It is impossible to live your life without causing some harm—we’ve all accidentally stepped on ants or breathed in gnats—but that doesn’t mean that we should intentionally cause unnecessary harm. You might accidentally hit someone with your car, but that is hardly the same as running over someone on purpose.

What about all the customs, traditions, and jobs that depend on using animals?
The invention of the automobile, the abolition of slavery, and the end of World War II all necessitated job retraining and restructuring. It is simply a part of all social progress—not a reason to deter progress.

Do animal rights activists commit terrorist acts?
The animal rights movement is dedicated to nonviolence. One of the central beliefs shared by most animal rights supporters is the rejection of harm to any animal—human or otherwise—but any large movement is going to have factions that believe in the use of force to attain their goals.

How can you justify spending your time on animals when there are so many people who need help?
There are very serious problems in the world that deserve our attention; cruelty to animals is one of them. We should try to alleviate suffering wherever we can. Helping animals is not any more or less important than helping human beings. Both are important. Animal suffering and human suffering are interconnected, and the morality of a society is measured by the degree to which it strives to alleviate suffering rather than allowing animals or humans to suffer.

Aren’t most animals who are used for food, clothing, entertainment, or experiments bred for that purpose?
Breeding animals for a certain purpose only changes humans’ attitudes toward them; it does not change their biological capacity to feel pain and fear.

Didn’t God put animals here for us to use? And doesn’t the Bible say that we have dominion over animals?
Dominion is not the same thing as tyranny. The Queen of England has “dominion” over her subjects, but that doesn’t mean she can inflict pain on them at will, eat them, wear them, or experiment on them. With dominion comes the responsibility for assuring the safety and well-being of those we are charged with caring for and protecting. If we have dominion over animals, surely it is to protect them, not to use them for our own ends. There is nothing in the Bible that justifies the modern-day policies and practices that are desecrating the environment, destroying entire species of wildlife, and inflicting torment and death on billions of animals every year. The Bible imparts a reverence for life, and a loving God could not help but be appalled at the way animals are being treated and destroyed.

How can animals on factory farms or in laboratory cages suffer if they’ve never known anything else?
To be denied the ability to perform the most basic instinctual behaviors causes tremendous suffering. Even animals who have been caged since birth feel the need to move around, groom themselves, stretch their limbs or wings, and exercise. Herd animals and flock animals become distressed when they are forced to live in isolation or when they are put into groups that are too large for them to be able to recognize other members. In addition, all confined animals suffer from intense boredom—some so severe that it leads to self-mutilation or other self-destructive behaviors.

If animal exploitation were really wrong, wouldn’t it be illegal?
Legality is no guarantee of morality. A law does not cause a person to act in legal or moral fashion. It only establishes punishment for transgressions. Only the opinions of today’s legislators determine who does and who does not have legal rights. The law changes as public opinion and political motivations change, but ethics are not so arbitrary. Look at some of the other things that have at one time been legal in America: child labor, human slavery, and the oppression and subjugation of women.

Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse or vivisection laboratory? If not, how do you know what you’re talking about?
It is not necessary to observe animal abuse firsthand to be able to criticize it anymore than one has to personally experience rape or watch a child being abused to criticize those practices. No one could be witness to all the suffering in the world, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t know what it is and shouldn’t try to stop it.

Are animals as intelligent or advanced as humans?
There are animals who are unquestionably more intelligent, creative, aware, and better able to communicate than some humans. A chimpanzee is superior to a human infant or a person with severe mental handicaps in these ways. Yet it isn’t the animal’s intelligence that matters, it’s his or her capacity for suffering. This capacity for suffering is not related to any being’s intelligence.

Possessing greater intelligence does not entitle one human to abuse another human for any purpose. With superior intelligence comes the obligation not to use it for harm.

Aren’t conditions on factory farms and fur farms better than conditions in the wild, where animals die of starvation, disease, or predation? At least the animals on factory farms are fed and protected. Right? This argument was used to claim that black people were better off as slaves being taken care of on plantations than as free men and women. The same could also be said of people in prison, but it is unlikely that anyone would choose to be enslaved or imprisoned. The desire for freedom and to control one’s own life is as strong in animals as it is in humans.

Animals on factory farms suffer so much that it is inconceivable that they could be worse off in the wild. The wild isn’t “wild” to the animals who live there; it’s their home. There, they have their freedom to roam where they like and can engage in natural activities. The fact that they might suffer in the wild is no reason to cause them to suffer in captivity.

Questions About Vegetarianism

Vegetarianism should be a personal choice, so why do you try to force it on everyone else?
From a moral standpoint, actions that harm others are personal choices that we should not be entitled to. Murder, child abuse, and cruelty to animals are all immoral. Our culture now encourages meat-eating and at least tacitly supports the cruelty of factory farming, but society also once encouraged slavery, child labor, and many other practices that are now recognized as wrong in civilized countries.

Animals kill other animals for food, so why shouldn’t we?
Animals who kill for food are behaving naturally and could not survive if they didn’t, but that is not the case for us. We choose to kill other creatures because we have developed a taste for their flesh and because of the powerful industries that encourage consumers to eat meat so that they can make money from selling meat products. We are better off if we don’t eat meat. Many other animals are vegetarians, including some of our closest primate relatives. Although they are naturally carnivorous, companion animals such as dogs and cats can thrive on plant-based diets when they do not have the opportunity or need to kill or scavenge for their food.

Don’t animals have to die sometime?
Yes, of course, but there is a natural order of things that determines death. Humans have to die as well, but no one has the right to kill them or cause them a lifetime of suffering.

If farmers didn’t treat their animals well, they wouldn’t produce as much milk or lay as many eggs, would they?
Animals on factory farms do not naturally produce milk and lay eggs in the amounts that they do because they are comfortable, content, or well cared for. They do these things because they have been manipulated using genetics, medications, hormones, and other management techniques. Animals raised for food today are slaughtered at an extremely young age—before disease and misery have decimated them—although mortality rates are still high among these young animals.

Such huge numbers of animals are raised for food that it is less expensive for farmers to absorb some losses than it is for them to provide humane conditions. One of the most egregious examples of greed occurred when farmers ground up the carcasses of their cattle who had died from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or “mad cow” disease, and mixed them with the feed that they gave to healthy cattle. This practice risked the health and well-being of those cattle as well as the lives of anyone who might have eaten a product from such cattle.

If everyone becomes a vegetarian, what will we do with all those chickens, cows, and pigs?
It’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will ever agree on anything, including not eating animals. But as the demand for meat decreases, the number of animals bred to produce it will also decrease, and farmers will turn to other types of agriculture. When there are fewer of these animals, they will be able to live more natural lives.

If everyone turned vegetarian, wouldn’t it be worse for animals because so many of them would never even be born?
Life on factory farms is so miserable that it is hard to imagine that we are doing animals a favor by bringing them into that type of existence, confining them, tormenting them, and then slaughtering them.

If everyone stops eating meat and switches to vegetables and grains, will there be enough to eat?
Again, all people will not likely follow the same path, so it is unlikely that there will no longer be any meat-eaters. But we feed enormous amounts of grain to animals in order to fatten them for consumption. If we all became vegetarians, we could produce enough food to feed the entire world. In the United States alone, 70 percent of all the wheat, corn, and other grain produced is used to feed livestock.(1)

Do vegetarians have difficulty getting enough protein?
Most Americans get more protein than they need. Only 10 percent of the total calories consumed by the average human being needs to be in the form of protein, and you can get that from whole wheat bread, oatmeal, beans, corn, peas, mushrooms, or broccoli—almost every food contains protein.(2) It’s almost impossible to eat as many calories as we need for good health without getting enough protein.

By contrast, too much protein causes osteoporosis and contributes to kidney failure and other diseases.

Don’t humans have to eat meat to stay healthy?
On the contrary, meat and dairy products have been linked to a host of diseases and conditions, including diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, strokes, obesity, asthma, impotence, and our nation’s biggest killers, heart disease and cancer. Studies have also shown that vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels than meat-eaters. Both the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the American Dietetic Association have endorsed vegetarian diets.

Isn’t eating meat a natural part of human evolution?
Humans have evolved without claws or fangs or another set of grinding molars, while carnivorous animals have long, curved fangs, claws, and a short digestive tract, enabling them to kill and eat animals without the weapons or utensils or need for cooking required by humans. Our so-called “canine” teeth are minuscule compared to those of carnivores and even compared to other primates like orangutans and gorillas, who are vegetarians. We have flat molars and a long digestive tract suited to a plant-based diet of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, and grains. The fact that our bodies have not adapted to eating meat is evidenced by the high incidence of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases suffered by those who eat a meat-centered diet.

What’s wrong with drinking milk? Don’t cows need to be milked?
In order for a cow to produce milk, she must have a calf. “Dairy cows” are impregnated every year so that they will keep up a steady supply of milk. In the natural order of things, the cow’s calf would drink her milk—eliminating her “need” to be milked by humans. But dairy cows’ calves are taken away within a day or two of birth so that humans can have the milk that nature intended for the calves. This separation is extremely traumatic for both the mother and her calf. Female calves are slaughtered immediately or raised for their milk. Male calves are confined for weeks to tiny veal crates that are too small for them even to turn around in so they will not develop the muscle mass of an animal who is free to move about.

The current demand for dairy products requires cows to be pushed beyond their natural limits, genetically engineered, and fed growth hormones in order to produce far more milk than they would naturally.

Is there such a thing as an unhealthy vegetarian?
Even vegetarians can be guilty of eating too much junk food, including trans fats, sugar, salt, and artificial ingredients, but doctors agree that vegetarians who eat a varied, low-fat diet stand a much better chance of living longer, healthier lives than their meat-eating counterparts.

If I didn’t kill the animal, how can you say that I am responsible for his or her death?
Even though you may not have held the knife, you “hired” the killer. Whenever you purchase meat, the killing has been done for you, and you paid for it.

If you were starving at sea in a boat with an animal on board, would you eat the animal?
Humans will go to extremes to save their own lives, even if it means hurting someone innocent. (People have even killed and eaten other humans in such situations.) This example, however, isn’t relevant to our daily choices. For most of us, there is no emergency and no reason to kill animals for food.

Questions About Hunting

Isn’t hunting much less cruel than factory farming?
It is true that quickly killing animals in the wild is much less cruel than confining them for months on a factory farm before sending them to slaughter, but many animals suffer slow, painful deaths when they are injured but not killed by hunters, and hunting, like farming, disrupts families and causes pain, trauma, and grief to both the victims and the survivors.

Without hunting, wouldn’t deer and other animals overpopulate and die of starvation?
Starvation and disease are unfortunate, but they are nature’s way of ensuring that the strong survive. Natural predators help keep prey species strong by killing only the sick and weak. Hunters, on the other hand, kill any animal they come across or any animal whose head they think would look good mounted above the fireplace. Unfortunately, these animals are usually the large, healthy ones needed to keep the population strong.

Hunting actually creates ideal conditions for overpopulation. After hunting season, the abrupt drop in population leads to less competition among survivors, resulting in a higher birth rate.

If we were really concerned about keeping animals from starving, we would take steps to reduce their fertility rather than hunting. We would also preserve wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and other natural predators. Ironically, many deer herds and duck populations are purposely manipulated to produce more and more animals for hunters to kill.

Don’t hunting fees provide a major source of revenue for wildlife management and habitat restoration?
The relatively small fee that each hunter pays does not even cover the cost of hunting programs or game wardens’ salaries. Hunting fees pay for programs that benefit only hunters, like manipulating populations to increase the number of animals available to kill. The public lands that many hunters use are supported by taxpayers, and funds benefiting “nongame” species are scarce.

Isn’t hunting OK as long as I eat what I kill?
If it is your only way to get enough food for your own survival or the survival of those who depend on you to provide for them, it might be justified. But most people hunt because they consider it a “sport,” not because they are hungry. As long as there are other ways to nourish ourselves, there is no excuse for hunting and killing animals.

What about people who have to hunt to survive?
We have no quarrel with subsistence hunters and fishers who truly have no choice but to hunt in order to survive. However, in this day and age, meat, fur, and leather are not a necessary part of survival for the vast majority of us.

Questions About Vivisection

How is it feasible to stop using animals for basic medical research when there is a need to observe the complex interactions of cells, tissues, and organs?
Besides the moral issues involved, clinical and epidemiological studies of humans offer a far more accurate picture without hurting anyone. Observing reactions in animals is no guarantee that the information can be extrapolated to humans. Different species of animals vary enormously in their reactions to toxins and diseases and in their metabolism of drugs. For example, a dose of aspirin that is therapeutic in humans is poisonous to cats and has no effect on fever in horses. Benzene causes leukemia in humans but not in mice; insulin produces birth defects in animals but not in humans, and so on. Animal experiments are a poor substitute for and cannot replace clinical observations of human beings.

Hasn’t every major medical advance been attributable to experiments on animals?
Medical historians have shown that improved nutrition, sanitation, and other behavioral and environmental factors—not anything learned from animal experiments—are responsible for the decline in deaths since 1900 from the most common infectious diseases and that medicine has had little to do with increased life expectancy. Many of the most important advances in health are attributable to human studies, including anesthesia, bacteriology, germ theory, the stethoscope, morphine, radium, penicillin, artificial respiration, antiseptics, the discovery of the relationships between cholesterol and heart disease and between smoking and cancer, the development of X-rays, the isolation of the virus that causes AIDS, and CAT, MRI, and PET scans. Contrary to what people may have been led to believe, animal testing played no role in these or many other developments.

Weren’t many of the treatments that we have today developed on animals?
Some medical developments did result from using cruel animal tests, but just because animals were used, doesn’t mean that they had to be used or that primitive techniques that were used in the 1800s are still valid today. It’s impossible to say where we would be if we had declined to experiment on animals because throughout medical history, very few resources have been devoted to non-animal research methods. In fact, because animal experiments frequently give misleading results with regard to human health, we’d certainly be better off if we hadn’t relied on them.

Don’t scientists have a responsibility to use animals to keep looking for cures for diseases?
More human lives could be saved and more suffering spared by educating people on the importance of avoiding trans fats and cholesterol, quitting smoking, reducing the consumption of alcohol and other drugs, exercising regularly, and cleaning up the environment than by all the animal tests in the world. Animal tests are primitive; we have modern technology that is cheaper, faster, more accurate, and harmless to people and animals.

Even if it could be proved that we have no alternative to using animals—which it can’t—as George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “[I]t is useless to assure us that there is no other key to knowledge except cruelty. When the vivisector offers us that assurance, we reply simply and contemptuously, ‘You mean that you are not clever or humane or energetic enough to find one.’”(3)

If we couldn’t use animals, wouldn’t we have to test new drugs on people?
Actually, new drugs are tested on people after they are tested on animals, and there’s no guarantee that drugs are safe just because they’ve been tested on animals. Because of the physiological differences between humans and other animals, results from animal tests cannot be accurately extrapolated to humans, leaving us vulnerable to exposure to drugs that can cause serious side effects.

Ironically, unfavorable animal test results do not prevent a drug from being marketed for human use. So much evidence has accumulated about differences in the effects that chemicals have on animals and humans that government officials often do not act on findings from animal studies. Many drugs, including Eferol, Oraflex, Suprol, Selacryn, and Vioxx, were taken off the market after causing hundreds of human deaths and injuries. If the pharmaceutical industry switched from animal experiments to quantum pharmacology and in vitro tests, we would have greater protection, not less.

If we didn’t test on animals, how would we conduct medical research?
Human clinical and epidemiological studies, cadavers, and computer simulators are faster, more reliable, less expensive, and more humane than animal tests. Ingenious scientists have developed—from human brain cells—a model “microbrain” with which to study tumors, as well as artificial skin and bone marrow. We can now test irritancy on egg membranes, produce vaccines from cell cultures, and perform pregnancy tests using blood samples instead of rabbits. As Gordon Baxter, cofounder of Pharmagene Laboratories (a company that uses only human tissues and computers to develop and test drugs), says, “If you have information on human genes, what’s the point of going back to animals?”(4)

Doesn’t animal experimentation help animals by advancing veterinary science?
This is like saying that it’s acceptable to experiment on poor children to benefit rich ones. The question is not whether animal experimentation can be useful to animals or humans; it is whether we have the moral right to inflict unnecessary suffering on unwilling “subjects.”

Don’t medical students have to dissect animals?
Dissecting animals teaches students about animal anatomy, not human anatomy. More and more medical students are becoming conscientious objectors to the use of animals in their medical training, and many students learn by assisting experienced surgeons rather than using animals. In Great Britain, it is against the law for medical students to practice surgery on animals, and British physicians are as competent as those educated elsewhere. Many leading U.S. medical schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford now use innovative, clinical teaching methods instead of old-fashioned animal laboratories.

Should we throw out all the drugs that were developed and tested on animals?
Unfortunately, a number of things in our society came about through others’ exploitation. For instance, many of the roads that we drive on were built by slaves. We can’t change the past; those who have already suffered and died are lost. But we can change the future by using non-animal research methods from now on.

Doesn’t the law protect animals from cruelty?
There is no law in the United States that prohibits any experiment, no matter how frivolous or painful. The federal Animal Welfare Act, which is very weak and poorly enforced, does not even protect rats and mice (the animals most commonly used for experiments), cold-blooded animals, birds, or animals traditionally raised for food. It is basically a housekeeping act that doesn’t prohibit any type of experiment on animals in laboratories. Animals can be starved, electrically shocked, driven insane, or burned with a blowtorch—as long as it’s done in a clean laboratory.

Since their research depends on animals’ well-being, don’t most scientists care about animals?
Investigations at the nation’s most prestigious institutions show that this is simply not the case. One PETA investigation revealed that animals were suffering from grotesque abuses in laboratories at Columbia University. In one study, for example, baboons were subjected to invasive surgeries and left to suffer and die in their cages without painkillers. Many experimenters become calloused after years of research. Instead of seeing the animals’ suffering, they treat animals as disposable tools for research. Improvements in care are said to be “too expensive.”

What about peer-review and animal-care committees at institutions?
Many such committees are composed mainly or totally of people with vested interests in the continuation of animal experimentation. It has taken lawsuits to permit public access to committee meetings.

Aren’t cats and dogs killed in pounds anyway? Why not use them for experiments to save lives?
A painless death at an animal shelter is a far cry from the life of pain and deprivation endured by animals in laboratories before they are killed by experimenters.

Would you support an experiment that would sacrifice 10 animals to save 10,000 people?
Suppose you were told that the only way to save those 10,000 people was to experiment on one mentally challenged orphan. If saving many people is the goal, would that be worth it? Most people will agree that it is wrong to sacrifice one human for the “greater good” of others because it would violate that individual’s rights. But when it comes to sacrificing animals, the assumption is that human beings have rights but animals do not. Yet there is no logical reason to deny animals the same rights that protect individual humans from being sacrificed for the common good.

What about experiments that simply observe animals without harming them?
If there really is no harm involved, we don’t object. But “no harm” means that animals are not isolated in barren, cold steel cages devoid of stimulation. The stress and fear of confinement are harmful to them, as shown by the marked differences in blood pressure between caged and free animals. Caged animals also suffer when they are prevented from performing their natural functions, such as mating, raising their young, procuring food through their own actions within their native environments while living among their peers and possible predators.

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