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Animal Welfare vs Animal Rights

What’s the Difference?

For the last 50 years or more, the debate has raged over the role of animals in human society, with particular reference to the ways in which we use them for our benefit.

There are fundamental differences between the Animal Welfare viewpoint and the Animal Rights philosophy. Fueling the debate still further has been the emergence, particularly in the last three decades, of a small, but vociferous group of adherents to the philosophy of animal rights, which views humans and animals as essentially equal and condemns any and all use of animals for human benefit.

Animal Welfare Viewpoint

The animal welfare philosophy is fundamentally different from the animal rights philosophy, since it endorses the responsible use of animals to satisfy certain human needs. These range from companionship and sport, to uses which involve the taking of life  for food, clothing and medical research. Animal welfare means ensuring that all animals used by humans have their basic needs fulfilled in terms of food, shelter and health, and that they experience no unnecessary suffering in providing for human needs.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) Policy on Animal Welfare and Animal Rights describes animal welfare as: …how an animal is coping with the conditions in which it lives.


In firmly endorsing animal welfare while rejecting animal rights, the AVMA takes the following position:

The AVMA’s commitment to animal welfare is unsurpassed. However, animal welfare and animal rights are not the same. AVMA cannot endorse the philosophical views and personal values of animal rights advocates when they are incompatible with the responsible use of animals for human purposes, such as food and fiber, and for research conducted to benefit both humans and animals.

The Animal Rights Viewpoint

Animal rights advocates do not distinguish between human beings and animals. In the words of Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), "There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They’re all mammals."


Michael Fox of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has said,

"The life of an ant and the life of my child should be accorded equal respect."


Some animal rights advocates reject all animal use, no matter how humane. Some have even suggested that animal welfare reforms impede progress toward animal rights because they improve the conditions under which “animal exploitation” occurs, making it more difficult to stimulate public opposition to animal use.

When the interests of humans and animals come into conflict, animal rights advocates put the animals first. PeTA’s Newkirk has said, "Even if animal research produced a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it."


United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

As an extension of this animal rights philosophy, a number of people are embracing veganism, relying exclusively on plant-based food, and plant-based and synthetic clothing. However, with less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface being suitable for crop production, animal protein and fiber will continue to be indispensable to the survival of the planet’s 6 billion people, and to the conservation of natural habitat. It is for these reasons that the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) promotes the use by humans of both plants and animals, domestic and wild.

On the importance of domesticated animals, the FAO takes the following position:

Domestic farm animals are crucial for food and agriculture, providing 30 to 40 percent of the agricultural sector’s global economic value. Around 2 billion people – one third of the global population – depend at least partly on farm animals for their livelihoods. Meat, milk and egg production will need to more than double over the next 20 years to feed the growing world population.

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