November 17, 2011

Animal Ethics 1101

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We spent the first few lectures of our ethics class discussing the difference between animal rights and animal welfare. My first introduction to the topic was an animal welfare class I took as an undergrad, where we learned that animal rights (for which People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is the most commonly referenced group) is essentially a movement to extend civil rights to animals. As much as I love animals and think that they should be treated with respect, I believe that the nature behind the human-animal relationship makes it impossible for them to have legal “rights,” which implies equality with humans. Humans have such a significant impact on the environment that we must take on a stewardship role and be responsible for taking care of the world and everything in it. This responsibility makes us inherently superior to animals, which makes the concept of animal rights difficult to apply.

The end goal of PETA and other animal rights groups (including, surprisingly, the Humane Society of the United States) is essentially the liberation of all animals and vegetarianism/veganism for all humans. PETA claims that it “operates under the simple principle that animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on or use for entertainment.”

Some changes that full recognition of animal rights would demand are highly problematic — freeing all pets, for example, is not feasible because we’ve bred domestication into them. Several studies have shown that adult domestic dogs retain several juvenile traits — essentially, your friendly adult black lab exhibits the behaviors of a very young wolf. As for vegetarianism, I think it’s a personal choice and not a moral obligation. Animals eat other animals and humans are technically animals too. We can try to put ourselves on a moral high ground and say that because we have the ability to behave morally we shouldn’t eat animals, but that doesn’t change the basic biology of humans being built like animals. Morals aside, many people in developing countries don’t even have the choice to sustain completely vegetarian diets — they take what they can get and often animal products are the most readily available. I’ve seen meat markets in Southeast Asia that would appear gruesome to many Westerners but are completely necessary for the livelihoods of the people there.

Even though I don’t agree with the animal rights aspects of organizations like PETA and the Humane Society (apparently less than one percent of their operating budget goes directly to shelters, check out, I do think that they have a positive impact on the community by at least making people aware of issues that should be dealt with. The Humane Society of the United States calls themselves advocates of “animal protection” to avoid the charged term “animal rights.” Although most people I’ve met in veterinary medicine would call HSUS leaders animal rights activists, some of the policies that they’re actually putting into practice (at least for now) align more closely with animal welfare than animal rights.

Animal welfare deals with the humane treatment of animals in order to ensure that they lead the best quality of life possible. It demands that all animals, regardless of their purpose, lead comfortable and pain-free lives. This has led to the refinement of regulations dealing with food animal slaughter and housing as well as lab animal treatment. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is an example of a welfare organization.

The American Veterinary Medical Association has officially endorsed animal welfare and denounced the radical stigma of animal rights, especially in relation to food and research animals. Although this may sound self-serving (without pets, livestock and research animals, clearly there wouldn’t be a veterinary profession), the rationale behind it is completely understandable. Livestock is going to be around for a while, and as long as there are animals used for food we have a responsibility to make sure that they are treated well.

The use of animals in research is a little more contentious, and something that I had to come to terms with myself when working on my undergraduate thesis. Lab animal use in research is actually strictly regulated. There are committees that must approve the experiment before it begins, and they will only do so if the researcher shows that the study has the potential to benefit science and/or medicine in some tangible way, and that the researcher has taken into consideration the “three Rs” — replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in research. Replacement can include replacing the use of animals with computer stimulation, cell lines or tissue engineering in vitro, or, if none of those is possible, using invertebrates such as fruit flies instead of vertebrate animals. Reduction involves reducing the number of animals used, and refinement involves making sure that a minimal number of invasive procedures are performed on the animals and that the animals lead as pain-free lives as possible. The bottom line is that the use of animals in research is strictly limited to only the particular research that has a potential to dramatically improve the world we live in, and the animals are treated with the utmost respect.

Animal rights and animal welfare are concepts that I’m sure will crop up frequently over the years in vet school (and beyond), and I’ll discuss at least a couple of specific examples over the course of the next few columns. I do respect the viewpoints of animal rights activists even if I don’t agree with them; I think the existence of radical extremes in our society is important to keep us living in a happy medium. Hopefully I’ve cleared up the difference between animal rights and animal welfare for you, but if you still think it’s confusing and would rather just donate your money to someone who you know helps animals, remember to think of your local shelter.

Nikhita Parandekar ’11 is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at [email protected]. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar