People are part of the natural world, and our relationship with animals is defined in large measure by the natural order. We know that humans and animals are inextricably tied together. In fact, we depend upon one another. It is virtually impossible for any living creature on this planet to exist without making use of fellow creatures. This is a fact that is unquestioned by any member of the animal kingdom with the exception of humans.
The notion of rights is a uniquely human one. Animals do not recognize the rights of other animals. They kill and eat one another as a matter of survival. But for humans, the concept of rights is a fundamental element of our social pact — the contract that permits us to live with one another in comparative harmony. As part of that contract, we recognize that rights are accompanied by responsibilities. In return for our rights as members of society, we accept the obligation to abide by society’s laws.
But animals cannot be parties to contacts. If we are prepared to assign rights to animals, what responsibilities do we expect them to fulfil?
The American Veterinary Medical Association has defined animal welfare as “a human responsibility” to assure that the basic needs of animals are met. There is no question that our power over animals brings with it the responsibility to treat them with respect and compassion.
Although many cultures have vastly differing views and traditions of animal use, most western societies have adopted basic rules governing human behavior toward animals. In the U.S., laws have been enacted at the federal level to assure the welfare of animals in medical research labs as well as the health of dogs and cats raised in professional kennels. These laws are administered by theU.S. Department of Agriculture.
In addition, most communities have local laws and ordinances to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty. These rules address everything from pet neglect and abuse to the treatment of circus animals, and from hunting and fishing to meat packing. Without addressing the issue of whether animals have inherent rights, our society has enacted laws to govern the behavior of human beings in their interaction with animals.
In the animal welfare view, social traditions and the body of existing law with respect to our use of animals are based on the premise that man’s right to use animals for human benefit carries with it the responsibility to do so humanely. These traditions and laws exist because for centuries man has recognized the wisdom and natural correctness of using animals for food, clothing, research, education and companionship.
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