Monday, March 25, 2013

Animal Welfare or Animal Rights?

In 1913 the RSPCA published pamphlets discussing the rights of animals and no-one seems to have thought this was anything untoward.

Today,  one of the frequent criticisms made by those who claim that the Society has "lost its way" is that we have been taken over by the supporters of animal rights and that we ought to be forced to promote animal welfare instead.

I have to say that I doubt whether many of the people who claim they no longer support the RSPCA for this reason are a great loss.

Leaving that to one side, I think it's essential that we take the initiative to reclaim the concept of "welfare" instead of letting it be used as a way to attack initiatives to make life better for animals.

"Welfare" is practical; if I look at a cat and see he has an abscess, I need to take practical steps to get him treated. If I'm caring for a rabbit I need to understand that rabbits are obligate fibre eaters and must get most of their calories from hay and grass or risk potentially distressing and fatal gut and jaw disorders. All this is based on knowledge and science, rather than abstract reasoning.
"Rights" or, if you prefer, duties toward animals, are more theoretical. How should we weigh up the conflicting needs of different kinds of animals? Is it right to give higher priority to animals who share our lives, such as cats and dogs, on the basis that "charity begins at home"? Is it better for animals to have short and happy lives rather than never to have been born at all?

It's nonsense to say we can usefully focus entirely on practical information because we still have to make choices about the way we go about applying that knowledge. Conversely, someone who can't accept that the ecological niche of some animals is in human society, because he has a romantic ideal of "nature" and despises scientific knowledge, is liable to be worse than useless.

We need both kinds of knowledge; practical and theoretical.

I'm sorry to sound rather like a stuck record, but this is exactly what the RSPCA should be for, because its size and the varied talents of its staff and volunteers make it possible to engage on all the levels needed to generate real benefits for animals.

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