Animal Welfare: The understanding that humans and animals have evolved in partnership and humans have a responsibility to care for their animals.

Animal Rights: The belief that all species are equal and humans have enslaved animals for their use.


Photo: 2016 Savabeel – The First Lady foal at Westbury Stud, NZ

Scientists tend to agree that the domestication of animals was mutually beneficial to both parties.  And to overly simply evolution, the domestic animals have succeeded to produce large numbers of themselves thanks to humans while less friendly animals have failed and are facing extinction.

The starting point for this partnership is still under discussion.  Initially, the theory of human agricultural evolution was that we selected animals and kept them for food, but scientists are now wondering if it was in fact the other way around.  About 43,000 years ago, humans were the number one hunter and fossil records show that we had already eradicated the other major predators.  Yet, we simultaneously hunted wolves and bred some to create the domestic dog.  This opposing standpoints here have made several scientists wonder if they chose us, not the other way around.  By hanging around humans, wolves had an easy food source, and if they behaved in a friendly fashion, then humans tolerated them creating the long process of evolution from wolf into dog.

From these early successes, it is likely that humans then found ways to work with other animals and therefore creating, eventually, modern society.

But regardless of how we got to where we are, there are two buzz words that matter to everyone who works in an animal related business, or has a pet, or eats.  Welfare vs Rights.

Animal welfare is about ensuring that animals are healthy and cared for.  Thankfully, most people understand the relationship with animals, and look after them properly.   Criticism often comes towards industries that are perceived to use animals for gain and or profit.  But here is where animals and humans work together.  Any decent chef will tell you that a healthy animal tastes better, and will pay a premium for animals that are better cared for.  Aside from the normal emotional relationship between a farmer and his animals, this gives added advantage to farmers with better welfare.  In the racing industry, the horses are protected through industry regulations with regards to fitness, health and drugs.  For Australia, this includes no drugs on race day, highly regulated racing rules (for safety) and the use of medicine in training to aid with healing, regeneration and in illness prevention and cure.

If all of this makes sense, why the fuss about welfare?  Because a few humans are indecent, so society must legislate against abuses towards animals.  Organisations who provide animal shelters, or re-homing, see the worst cases and these hard working people need to be backed up by adequate regulation.

Contrast these ideas to animal rights.  Sometimes the line between welfare and rights is blurry, for example, the RSPCA and vegetarians who tend towards not eating animals, but eggs, cheese and fish are ok.  But often, animal rights is based in a base belief that all species are equal; speciesism.  Essentially, this means that animals have the same rights as humans, and that humans who work with animals, or have a pet, are enslaving that animal for their own gain.

In some ways, this is easy to understand.  Animal rights is the belief that all animals, including humans, have a right to a free life without being used by another species.  This belief in animal rights is the baseline for a vegan.  To live your life without impacting on another species.  No eating meat, no butter or cheese or eggs or fish, no leather, no vaccines, no organic vegetables (which use animal products for fertiliser), etc.  Many people live this life while also ensuring that they don’t impact on other humans through religious style fervour.

There appear to be two separate schools of thought amongst animal rights extremists.  One is the PETA model that believes that all life is suffering, therefore animals are better off dead.  PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk says that PETA shelters give animals “the gift of euthanasia” – to the tune of over 85% of animals sent to the shelters for re-homing.  On average, each animal is given two days to find a home, then it is given “the best gift they’ve ever had”.  Newkirk is even quoted as saying “we do not advocate ‘right to life’ for animals”.

At the other extreme are the zealots who want to free animals from human enslavement.   One version of this is a group called Voiceless who believe that animals should have the same legal rights as humans.  This means that a vet who humanely puts down a severely injured horse can be prosecuted for murder.  It also means that a huntsman spider can be prosecuted for murdering a cockroach – unless it doesn’t apply to insects.  Then it only means that a pet cat can be prosecuted for murdering the neighbour’s guinea pig.  Using horses for racing, or animals for pets is to infringement on their right to freedom.

And all of these arguments only relate to domesticated animals.  It is a whole other discussion to look at how humans should treat endangered animals.  Habitat conservation, breeding programs (although animal rights people would say that this is another form of slavery), eradicating imported pests (such as cane toads).


I say – concentrate on welfare, not rights.  Species are not equal.  Some are predators, some are prey and some have evolved alongside humans to create today’s society.  We should enjoy that relationship and do our very best to look after our animals in the best of health using the best that modern medicine and veterinary care can provide.  Be humane.  Choose welfare, not rights.


First published: 8 October 2015