Around the world, what the media often refer to as “the animal rights movement” is taking off. Mass protests, fierce lobbying, litigation, and draft treaties have led to new legislation at the national, provincial, and city levels. It is now forbidden to use great apes in biomedical research, to bullfight in Catalonia, and to operate factory farms and slaughterhouses without adhering to the stricter rules governing the treatment and living conditions of livestock. However, with a few exceptions, these efforts are not truly about “animal rights” but about “animal welfare.”
One reason for this difference is that worldwide, animals are regarded as “legal things,” incapable of having rights and treated as articles of property. In contrast, humans are deemed “legal persons,” possessing intrinsic value and the capacity for an infinite number of legal rights as the owners of “legal things.” Another reason is that the term “animal” encompasses the enormously diverse biological kingdom of animalia, which comprises more than 1.25 million known species (with more to be discovered) that fall along a vast continuum of consciousness, sentience, general intelligence, and autonomy. It includes 60,000 vertebrates: 5,500 mammals, 10,000 birds, 6,200 amphibians, 30,000 fish, and 8,200 reptiles. The million-plus known invertebrates include about 950,000 varieties of insects, 81,000 mollusks, and 40,000 crustaceans.
At one end of this spectrum of mental capacity and awareness are animals such as sponges, jellyfish, and sea anemones that scientists believe are unlikely to be conscious or have an ability to feel pain or suffer. These are therefore unlikely to be appropriate subjects of animal welfare legislation (which focuses on preventing unnecessary pain and suffering), though they may be protected by environmental or conservation laws.
At some point along this continuum, however, a primitive level of consciousness and sentience kicks in. A great number of animals fall in this category, such as cows and sheep. These animals have been the subject of welfare legislation ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century, when early animal welfare movements in the United Kingdom sought to end cruel practices such as beatings and other inhumane treatment. Since then, the animal rights movement has struggled to make further progress with these types of animals.
Animals at the continuum’s other end—including great apes, cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), and elephants—possess a complex consciousness and self-consciousness, exquisite sentience, robust general intelligence, and a powerful sense of autonomy. They, too, have long received some protection from unnecessary cruelty. But rapid scientific advances over the last half century have demonstrated that their advanced levels of cognition leave them inadequately protected by anticruelty and similar legislation.
Picture: Roger Zenner, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chimpanzee_head_sketch.png#filelinks