Animal Rights or Welfare - The Big Difference

I would say most people oppose cruelty to animals. But I reckon the vast majority consider humans and animals to have very different rights.

Life in the circus. Photo: Douglas McPherson

Who, in this day and age, would stand up in parliament and oppose a ban on wild animals in circuses? Andrew Rosindell, the Conservative MP for Romford, did that last week and blocked Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick's last hope of introducing a ban before the general election.

A ban was originally announced in 2012 by animal welfare minister Lord Taylor. With the government having yet to pass the necessary law, Fitzpatrick tried to hasten action by introducing the same legislation as a private members bill in October last year. It was blocked on that occasion by Rosindell, too.

To understand why Rosindell, a former shadow minister for animal welfare, is such a staunch defender of the circus, I looked up a YouTube clip of him addressing the Commons on the issue in 2011.

His view was that the government should base its decisions on facts rather than emotions and opinion polls; that he had personally investigated circuses rather than being blindly led by anti-circus campaigners, and found the animals to be well cared for. He added that we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of cruelty, and that it would be more cruel to take circus animals out of the environment where they had been bred than to leave them in a situation they were accustomed to.

That last point prompted another MP to ask whether Rosindell believed third generation African-American slaves were more comfortable with their slavery because they'd been born into it? The questioner thought he'd played a trump card. But he actually highlighted an issue he probably wasn't even aware of, and which is this:

Slaves were human beings. Circus animals are animals. To regard them in the same way is to confuse the notions of 'animal welfare' and 'animal rights.' The difference is generally blurred in the circus animals debate.

The animal rights movement, which bases much of its philosophy on Pete Singer's book Animal Liberation, believes animals should have similar or the same rights as humans. The slogan of Peta, the world's largest animal rights organisation and one of the leading campaigners against animals in circuses is "Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way."

That's fair enough. But is it a philosophy shared by the majority of animal lovers who may be concerned about the welfare of circus animals?

I would say most people oppose cruelty to animals. But I reckon the vast majority consider humans and animals to have very different rights. Most of us have no objection to eating meat, wearing clothes made from animal products or owning pets. Most of us can see the difference between eating an animal and being cruel to it - or owning a pet and being cruel to it. We will happily support laws that prevent farmers being cruel to their livestock, but would we so readily support a law that gives cattle the right not to be eaten?

The same ethics should apply to animals in entertainment.

We're constantly told by campaigners that the use of animals in circuses is wrong. But is it wrong on the grounds of animal welfare - that the animals are cruelly treated or institutionally suffer in the circus? Or is it wrong on the grounds of animal rights - that animals have the right not to be kept in captivity, trained and displayed to the public for entertainment?

If you believe animals should have the right not to be owned and exploited, go ahead and support a ban on ethical grounds. Just be sure that you are committed to not eating meat, buying animal products, riding horses or owning pet cats and dogs - because banning all those things is the next logical step on the grounds that they all infringe the rights of the animals concerned.

If, on the other hand, you're happy to eat meat, wear leather shoes and own a pet, make sure you're 100% certain that there are grounds to ban circus animals for reasons of welfare.

Emotive instances of abuse, such as the case of Anne the elephant, make headlines because they are extremely rare. They do not mean the circus is abusive as an institution. The Radford Report, commissioned by the last Labour government, concluded that circuses were as capable of meeting the welfare needs of their animals as other captive environments such as zoos; it found no welfare reasons for a ban. A licensing and inspection system introduced in 2012 closely regulates the use of wild animals in the two British circuses that still have them, and we have existing laws to deal with individual cases of mistreatment, just as we have laws to protect livestock from cruelty without needing to ban the meat trade.

If you are unsure about the welfare of circus animals, I suggest you do what Rosindell did - visit a circus, inspect the living conditions and meet the trainers before you make up your mind.

The most important thing, though, is to be clear whether you support a ban on the grounds of animal welfare or animal rights. Anti-circus campaigners generally blur the distinction because they know nearly everyone believes in animal welfare while perhaps only the 2% of the population that identifies itself as vegetarian or vegan share their view of animal rights. Understanding the difference means you can be an animal lover and still love the circus.

An earlier version of this article appeared on the author's blog


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