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Are Humans The Only Ones With Rights?

By Johnny Texeira

1 Introduction Human beings have rights. We assign and uphold these moral rights for ourselves and for others. As we’ve developed our understanding of our place in the universe, our relation to one another has given rise to these rights. Ethical human beings promote a sense of empathy and respect for their fellow homo sapiens. As defined by the United Nations, human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. These rights include the right to life, and the right to being free and equal, specifically the freedom from slavery. They also include the right to education, the right to organize and to be treated fairly, the right to freedom of opinion, expression, thought and religion. In The Declaration of Human Rights, the UN declares that these rights must be respected and protected by the law.

But what does it mean to have a right? If you have a right, it means you have a moral or legal entitlement to be treated in a certain way. To believe that you have rights is to believe that you have status as an individual, and that your personal interests should be protected. These basic human rights are upheld by law in much of our world today.

But what about nonhumans? Primates, dolphins, octopuses, animals that have only recently branched from our evolutionary tree; many of these creatures experience life in a remarkably complex way. Scientific studies have determined the unmistakable similarities to our own experiences. Nonhuman animals suffer in ways that we protect our human counterparts from. Should we extend these protections to nonhuman animals as well?

2 Sounds a little silly, doesn’t it? At first, the question may sound a bit absurd. After all, why would animals even need rights? But over the past few centuries, animal activism has taken many forms. It has given rise to animal welfare, which protects the wellbeing of animals that humans use for their benefit. Countries all around the world have passed bills and laws that grant protections to non-human animals. As of 2023, 14 countries have passed animal rights laws that have gained the support of the UN. In the United States, many of these laws are currently enacted, including:

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA), originally passed in 1966, requires minimum standards of care be followed for animals. It sets minimum standards regarding the “handling, care, treatment, and transportation,” for animals kept at zoos, used in laboratories, and bred for commercial sale.

The Humane Slaughter Act, passed in 1958, requires that animals be stunned into unconsciousness before slaughter in order to minimize their pain.

The Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1973, protects fish, mammals, and birds listed as threatened or endangered species from being taken from their habitat. It outlines procedures to follow regarding these species, as well as criminal and civil penalties for violations.

At the state level, even more animal protection laws are enforced. These include wildlife protection laws and laws regulating the safety and wellbeing of domesticated animals.

But animal welfare is only the beginning of animal activism. Animal rights thinking has become a prominent force in our human world, and we are constantly studying and redeveloping our understanding of animals and our place among them.

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3 Animal Rights Through History We as a species have been studying our fellow Earth-beings since the beginning. We have made striking discoveries about our interrelatedness, revolutionizing our relationship with the natural world and our place within it. This way of thinking has arisen through centuries of wisdom accumulated from philosophers and scientists alike. Vast expanses of human knowledge have created fertile soil for Animal Rights thinking to grow, and from this foundation, policy is just beginning to sprout.

In the East, this history can be traced back to the conception of Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism. In these religions, the virtue of Ahimsa teaches non-violence, and the texts of these religions apply this virtue to all living beings. Such thinking exists on the premise that all living beings share a divine energy; and to hurt another living creature is the same as hurting oneself.

In the West, enlightenment philosophers have a long history of pondering the same questions; Aristotle's hierarchical view of the natural world placed humans at the top. But Theophrastus opposed this view, arguing that animals have reasoning (logismos), and therefore he opposed eating meat on the grounds that it robbed the animal of life, and was therefore unjust.

Not all proselytizing comes strictly from protecting the animals themselves. German philosopher Immanuel Kant formed an argument from the perspective of human ethics, claiming “cruelty to animals is contrary to man's duty to himself, because it deadens in him the feeling of sympathy for their sufferings” (Kant (1785), part II, paras 16 and 17). According to his thinking, inflicting violence upon animals makes humans less sympathetic toward even members of their own species.

In the 19th century, the first piece of animal welfare legislation in recorded history was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom, entitled: An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle 1822.

Scientific study has inspired startling development in animal rights thinking. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) presented the theory of evolution by natural selection, revolutionizing the way we understand our relationship with animals. Darwin argued that, not only did human beings have a direct kinship with other animals, but the latter had social, mental and moral lives too.

1866 saw the foundation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), founder Henry Bergh, a champion of animal rights, stated in his Eulogy that he was a "...friend to every friendless beast."

Animal rights thinking has arrived at the forefront of our culture, animal activists reshaping the way we think about animals. These prominent figures include Jane Goodall, who’s spent 60 years in Tanzania studying the social interactions of primates. In 1977, she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, whose mission is to protect chimpanzees and other primates from hunting and illegal trade. In 1976, Alex Hershaft founded the Farm Animal Rights Movement (FARM) a nonprofit organization that has helped save thousands of animals from slaughter. It is the ​​oldest non-profit organization in the US dedicated to promoting veganism and animal rights. In 1980, animal rights activists Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an international nonprofit charitable organization dedicated to establishing and defending the rights of all animals.

4 How are we violating their rights? What are we doing to these animals? Animal exploitation refers to animals being used by humans for a variety of reasons, be it for food, clothing, as experimental objects, or even as pets. One way humans exploit animals is by testing on them. Animal testing is the system in which animals have repeatedly been used throughout the history of biomedical research. Animal welfare groups, legislators, and academics debate formal standards for how humans should treat and interact with animals. The scientific field of animal welfare science studies longevity, disease, immunosuppression, behavior, physiology, and reproduction of animals. Scientific study helps to determine which of these best indicate the welfare of the animal.

5 The Question of Sentience Recent studies blur the perceived lines between humans and animals. The more we learn, the more we realize how deep our similarities go. Sentience is the capacity to have feelings, such as feelings of pain, pleasure, hunger, thirst, warmth, joy, comfort, and excitement. We humans know these feelings very well, and we find that animals experience life in much the same way.

Studies conducted by Takaaki Kaneko and Masaki Tomonaga of the Primate Research Institute in Kyoto reported that “chimpanzees and humans share fundamental cognitive processes underlying the sense of being an independent agent.”

Cuttlefish can pass cognitive tests designed for human children. Octopuses can recognize individual humans, remember how to solve puzzles they've encountered before, and are even known to be clever escape artists.

Animal sentience refers to the capacity of these animals to experience positive and negative feelings. Pain, pleasure, distress and even joy can be experienced by these creatures. Evidence from a vast array of scientific studies has helped us understand that a wide range of animals are sentient beings.

In the Cambridge Declaration on consciousness, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists declared that “the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Nonhuman animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”

In 2022, The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom recognized animal sentience in law for the first time. Under the act, all vertebrates and some invertebrates such as octopuses and lobsters are recognized as sentient beings. The act regulates the ways in which policies of the Parliament might have an adverse effect on the welfare of animals as sentient beings.

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6 Contemporary Animal Rights Over the twentieth century, animal rights activism has initiated profound societal development, socially, intellectually and ethically. Animal rights societies and special interest groups dedicated to furthering this cause have united millions of people behind scientifically founded ethical agendas.

Many organizations today reflect this commitment to ending animal cruelty. The ASPCA remains one of the largest humane societies in the world. On its website, the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation states the intention of the organization, “founded on the belief that animals are entitled to kind and respectful treatment at the hands of humans and must be protected under the law.” They rely on a powerful commitment to becoming a voice for the animals. They maintain a strong local presence, offering services to mitigate animal cruelty, homelessness and neglect, and offer strong response efforts toward natural disasters, “assisting thousands of animals each year, bringing them to safety and helping them heal.”

The Humane Society of The United States (HSUS) fronts the fight to end animal cruelty. Also a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, its website reads, “Together with millions of supporters, the [HSUS] takes on puppy mills, factory farms, the fur trade, trophy hunting, animal cosmetics testing and other cruel industries.” They offer rescue, response, sanctuary, and hands-on animal care services. Their work involves reform and action across the animal movement, ending cruel practices toward animals, caring for animals in crisis, and building a stronger animal protection movement.

Societies such as these and many more grassroots movements fight for animal welfare, working with all levels of government. This organized and unified approach to animal activism helps enact and enforce laws that protect animals around the world.

Animal Rights Activist Rachel Levy with protestors. PC: PETA

7 Call to action We are perched upon a new threshold of understanding the ways in which we think about animals. Throughout the vast eons of our planet, it's only within the last few centuries that we’ve begun to understand the creatures that we share this planet with. How can we help them?

To create an impact, we need to think carefully about how we live our lives in regards to nonhuman animals. We need to ask the right questions, and decide for ourselves:

- what we eat

- what we wear

- how we travel

- what we buy

- which materials we use and their effects on animals

- think critically about the ways in which we treat animals personally and ethically, everywhere we encounter them.

We can get involved with animal movements around the globe, and we can donate and contribute to animal welfare and animal rights groups:

Help the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) improve the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system:

Join PETA’s action team to help advocate for animals:

Animal Equality exposes harmful animal practices:

And offers campaigns to help you become an Animal Protector:

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How can you treat animals with respect to their rights?

Imagine for a moment if you were an animal, and human society upheld protections such as these:

The habitats of animals must be protected to allow them to live according to their choosing.

Animal rights shall be protected, including:

Freedom from hunger and thirst

Freedom from discomfort

Freedom from pain, injury, or disease

Freedom to express normal behavior

Freedom from fear and distress

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