Should humans keep other animals in cages, eradicate
them for human development, or move them from one habitat to another?
Human relationships with nature raise numerous complex issues. Often
people wonder why those who they perceive to be concerned with the
psychological and physical health of animals can't agree on solutions to
existing problems. They believe that advocates of animal welfare and
animal rights will favor the same solutions. Often this isn't so. A
consideration of some recent local issues the Estes Park Zoo,
reintroduction of lynx, eradication of prairie dogs, dog labs at CU's
medical school and the high death rate at Ocean Journey highlights the
differences between these views.
People who believe that it's permissible to cause
animals pain, but not unnecessary pain, argue that if we consider the
animals' welfare or well-being their quality of life that's all we need
to do. These people are called "welfarists" and they practice
"welfarism." Welfarists believe that while humans should not wantonly
exploit animals, as long as we make animals' lives comfortable,
physically and psychologically, we're respecting their welfare. If
animals experience comfort and some of life's pleasures, appear happy,
and are free from prolonged or intense pain, fear, hunger and other
unpleasant states, they're doing fine. If individuals show normal growth
and reproduction, and are free from disease, injury, malnutrition and
other types of suffering, they're doing well and we're fulfilling our
obligations to them.
Welfarists also assume that it's alright to use animals
to meet human ends as long as certain safeguards are used. They believe
keeping animals in zoos and aquariums where there are high death rates
(about 20 percent at Denver's Ocean Journey, the "industry standard"),
using animals in experiments and slaughtering animals for human
consumption are permissible as long as these activities are conducted in
a humane way. But welfarists don't believe that animals' lives have
inherent value. Animals' lives are valuable merely because of their
utility or use-value to humans.
Basically, welfarists are utilitarians who believe that
dogs, cats, prairie dogs, or any other animals can be exploited as long
as the pain and suffering that the animals experience, the costs of
using the animals, to the animals are less than the benefits to humans
that are gained by using the animals. Animal pain and death are
justified because of the benefits that humans derive. The ends (human
benefits) justify the means (the use of animals) even if they suffer,
because their use is considered to be necessary for human gains. Those
who argue that moving animals around for human benefits and using dogs
to teach medical students often employ the utilitarian argument, as do
those who feel comfortable eating formerly "free-ranging chickens" but
not chickens who've been brutally debeaked and imprisoned in inhumane
Now what about those who advocate animal rights?
Rightists also are concerned with animals' quality of life. However,
they argue it's wrong to abuse or exploit animals, to cause animals any
pain and suffering, and that animals shouldn't be eaten, held captive in
zoos, or used in most (or any) educational or research settings. They
believe animals have certain moral and legal rights including the right
to life and the right not to be harmed. According to Gary Francione, a
professor of law at Rutgers University, to say an animal has a "right"
to have an interest protected means the animal is entitled to have that
interest protected even if it would benefit us to do otherwise.
Rightists believe humans have an obligation to honor
that claim for animals, just as they do for nonconsenting humans who
can't protect their own interests. So, if a dog has a right to be fed
you have an obligation to make sure she's fed. If a dog has a right to
be fed, you're obligated not to do anything to interfere with feeding
Rightists also stress that animals' lives are inherently
valuable; their lives aren't valuable because of their utility to
humans. Animals aren't "less valuable" than humans. Also, animals are
neither property nor "things," but rather living organisms, subjects of
a dignified life, who are worthy of our support, friendship, compassion
and respect. Any amount of pain and death is unnecessary and
Now, what about many conservation biologists and
environmentalists? Typically, they're welfarists (utilitarians) who are
willing to trade-off individuals' lives for the perceived good of higher
levels of organization such as ecosystems, populations or species.
Witness recent debates about the reintroduction of lynx into Colorado.
Some conservationists and environmentalists, in contrast to rightists,
argued that the death (even agonizingly painful starvation) of some
individuals was permissible for the perceived good of the species. Some
even say that we should concentrate on the 14 animals who are known to
be alive, rather than the 15 dead or 12 missing. People who claim it's
alright to kill some prairie dogs because there are numerous other
prairie dogs, are taking a utilitarian stance. The costs to individuals
(and species) are less than the benefits to humans.
Labeling an individual a "welfarist" or "rightist"
connotes important messages about their views on animal exploitation.
One must be careful how these words are tossed around. Welfarists and
rightists have radically different perceptions, perspectives and
agendas, and solve problems differently. They preach very different
codes of conduct. Welfarism and rights are extremely difficult to
reconcile. Indeed, many experts think it's an impossible marriage.
Nonetheless, its essential to understand their different perspectives in
our efforts to protect animals who can't speak for themselves, whose
voices fall on deaf ears.
Marc Bekoff teaches in Environmental, Population, and
Organismic Biology at CU-Boulder.
January 16, 2000
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