To answer this question, let’s take a look at the history of the animal rights movement to get some perspective. The ASPCA pioneered in putting animal suffering into the national conversation. Before they were founded, humans saw and treated them as agricultural machines and chattel. Because of the actions and passion of one man, Henry Bergh, things began to change and society slowly started to regard animals as sentient beings and human decency dictated they should be treated with respect. This brought to the fore a handful of groups around the country looking at welfare. However, animal rights, or the assertion that animals are entitled to legal rights, was still years away. The mentality at that time was "it’s okay to use the animals for whatever purpose you want, as long as they are treated humanely." For animal welfare organizations, this is still the main idea to follow. For animal rights organizations, there is no such thing as humane treatment of factory-farmed animals, greyhounds, circuses and lab animals, and dogs raised in puppy mills.
Video: Every year, the ASPCA rewards individuals and animals who make strides to advance animal welfare. See the award-winners for 2016.
The animal rights movement was not a “thing” until the sixties and seventies, when Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Henry Spira and John Robbins, philosophers of the day, exposed the brutality with which “food animals” and lab animals were mistreated. When “Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappe was published in 1971, Americans began to see the relationship between a vegetarian diet and loving animals. Decent people, good people, loved their dogs, cats, even their cattle to a certain extent but still ate them. This book opened their eyes to what a dichotomy that really was. Peter Singer’s 1979 book “Animal Liberation,” furthered these ideas and birthed the first serious animal rights group, the People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA). Indeed, Peter Singer is known as the “Father of the Animal Rights Movement.”
Prominent scientists, nutritionists, ethicists and doctors began to look into the idea of a plant-based diet. “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins introduced the word “vegan” in 1987.
In essence, we are already governing and enforcing laws on behalf of the rights of animals to live unhindered and without pain and suffering.
Agriculture and dairy manufacturers were concerned that so many studies were pointing out how heart diseases and cancers are the result of animal consumption. Naturally, they fought back, and won. They have big budgets for huge lobbying efforts to keep Americans in the dark about the real dangers of consuming animals. But the thing is, if we eat McDonalds every day, we will increase our morbidity. If we drive around without a seat belt, we will increase our morbidity. We legislate one, but not the other.
Studies also abound raising our awareness about the importance of certain species to our planet, the intelligence of certain animals (apes, dolphins, whales, etc.) and other uncomfortable ideas that make it incumbent upon us, as a species, to be kinder to the disadvantaged. Animals, not having developed a language WE can understand, fall into that category.
As more and more abuses came to light, animal rights organizations sprang up, promoting rights for all animals, especially those affected by industrialized cruelty. According to Animal Charity Evaluator, animal rights, organizations such as Animal Equality International, Mercy for Animals, Farm Animal Rights Movement, and others are dedicated to stopping animal cruelty by raising awareness about food animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, geese and fish; and animal testing for both cosmetics and medical purposes. (For a full list of recommended animal-rights charities, click here.)
In addition to the animal rights and animal welfare agencies, Political Action Committees lobby on behalf of animal welfare. The Humane Society Legislation Fund is one such PAC.
It’s sad to think we must legislate compassion. But, in fact, that’s exactly what we have to do. For reasons pertaining to money or bad character, people hurt billions of animals every second.
Insomuch as “should we,” “should” is very subjective. Should we treat animals like humans? Well, aren’t we human animals and other species simply non-human animals? What about human babies born with birth defects that make them unable to communicate, learn or engage? Should they have MORE rights than highly developed, intelligent animals such as dolphins? Why? Because they are human? But what makes us human? Is it the fact that we are able to think compassionately, logically and ethically? Is it our DNA? Chimpanzees have less than 5% difference than us in their DNA. Less than 5%. So where is the demarcation? Who decided where and why is it thus?
As far as enforcing animal welfare and animal rights laws, in a complicated evolution of lawsuits, the courts have decided that lawyers can come to court and represent non-human plaintiffs for damages. You can learn more about that at ISAR.
Most states have anti-cruelty laws they do aggressively enforce. For example, it’s illegal to engage in animal blood sports such as dog, cock and horse fighting. It’s illegal to beat a dog or cat to death. It’s illegal to take your old, sick golden retriever, for example, out on a deserted highway and drop him off simply because he is sick - it’s considered abandonment and most states have laws against it. So in essence, we are already governing and enforcing laws on behalf of the rights of animals to live unhindered and without pain and suffering. We have the right to the pursuit of happiness. But more and more, the courts and public opinion seem to be saying, animals have the right to make their way in the world. They have a purpose for which they were put on Earth, we may not know what it is, but they do. Even the tick has a purpose.
More and more, the courts and public opinion seem to be saying, animals have the right to make their way in the world.
Ticks, full of protein and iron, are eaten by cow-birds and other creatures, who then spread seeds and help the crops grow, etc. etc. etc. Same with bats and mosquitoes. Same with butterflies. If we just put a little effort into seeing it, we will see the web of life for what it is. If this sounds hippy-dippy, well, I guess it is. But that STILL doesn’t change the fact that, as pointed out before, the courts have decided animals do have a voice.
It’s sad to think we must legislate compassion. But, in fact, that’s exactly what we have to do. For reasons pertaining to money or bad character, people hurt billions of animals every second. Animal rights being on par with human rights may seem like an extremist view. But for those who dedicate their lives to it, there is an overwhelming feeling that those who have a voice are bound by a moral code to speak for those who don’t.