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Animal Rights and Animal Welfare

By Sheryl L. Pipe, Ph.D.

American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

Animal rights and animal welfare fall at different points on a continuum that runs from animal liberation at one end to animal exploitation at the other.  The animal rights viewpoint can be defined as the belief that humans do not have the right to use animals for their own gain—in the laboratory, on the farm, in entertainment or in the wild.  The degree to which humans may benefit from any use of nonhuman animals is irrelevant to determine how animals should be treated (Regan 1998).  The animal welfare viewpoint advocates the humane use of animals which involves maintaining animal well-being and prohibiting unnecessary cruelty.  Many distinctions can be made within these terms but both connote a concern for the suffering of others (Sztybel 1998). 

Historic Roots
A concern for the welfare of animals can be seen in multiple laws set forth in the Old Testament.  There are requirements that animals also rest on the Sabbath and that they be fed before feeding oneself.  There are prohibitions against, for example, boiling the meat of a kid in his mother’s milk and yoking animals of different sizes together.  In ancient  Athens, Triptolemus, a Greek demi-god also known as “the most ancient of the Athenian legislators” is said to have established the following law; …Sacrifice to the Gods from the fruits of earth; Injure not animals.  And in India, between 274-232 BCE, King Asoka published multiple edicts to protect animals (e.g., no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice) and promote kindness to living beings.

Secular anti-cruelty legislation dates back to 1635.  At that time a law was passed in Ireland which prohibited working horses by their tails and pulling (rather than shearing) wool from live sheep.  The Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641 enacted statutory legislation to protect animals from cruel treatment.  This was the first anti-cruelty law passed in what would become the United States and the first law to protect animals in transit. 

In 1822 the Bill to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle, proposed by Richard Martin, was passed.  This legislation, referred to as “Martin’s Act” prohibited the cruel treatment of any “Horse, Mare, Gelding, Mule, Ass, Ox, Cow, Heifer, Steer, Sheep, or other Cattle”.  The modern era of anti-cruelty legislation is commonly traced back to Martin’s Act (Animal Rights History). 

The taxonomy Carl Linnaeus proposed in the 1700s was based on the similarities among humans and other animals.  This along with the work of Charles Darwin and the abhorrence of pain and suffering in Victorian England represents a turning point in the ways in which animals were viewed.  Prior to the work of Linnaeus, the Cartesian notion of animals as unfeeling beings—mere automatons—was widely held.  In Victorian England causing an animal unnecessary pain was the measure of animal cruelty.  It was at this point in time that vivisection came to be considered an evil (Zawistowski 2008).  Today vivisection refers to all experimental procedures that result in the injury or death or animals (Fox 2000).

During the nineteenth century animal welfare organizations came into being.  The first such organization in the world, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was formed in 1824 by Arthur Broome in England and became the Royal SPCA (RSPCA) in 1840 as a result of the patronage of Queen Victoria.  The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the first such organization in the Americas, was founded by Henry Bergh in 1866 and was modeled after the RSPCA.  Soon many such organizations were founded across the United States (Zawistowski 2008).  Carolyn Earle White of Philadelphia cofounded not only the Women’s Branch of the Pennsylvania SPCA but also the American Anti-Vivisection Society (Fox 2000).

While many of the concepts in the modern animal rights movement can be found in the 1892 book Animal Rights by Henry Stephens Salt, the movement as we know it today coalesced in the 1960’s and 1970’s due to the zeitgeist of the civil rights and antiwar movements.  The publication of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in 1975 is seen as a pivotal moment for the movement.  From that point on “animal rights” groups have proliferated around the globe (Fox 2000, Finsen & Finsen 1998, Zawistowski 2008). 

The early 1980’s saw the birth of many national animal rights organizations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM) and In Defense of Animals (IDA).  The Animal Liberation Front (ALF) came to America in 1977 releasing two dolphins in a raid of a research lab in Hawaii and received much press in the 1980s for raids of laboratories and releasing animals used in research.

While the 1980s was a decade of high media visibility,  the protests and demonstrations of some organizations were not garnering as much media coverage in subsequent decades.  This, at least in part, resulted in organizations such as Earthsave and Farm Sanctuary moving to education in addition to exposing animal abuse in various industries in the media (Finsen & Finsen 1998). 

What is the importance of the distinction between animal rights and animal welfare?  Is there really a difference?  At the core, animal welfare advocates seek to protect animals from practices that are wantonly cruel while accepting certain uses of animals if suffering is prevented or kept at a minimum (Fox 2000, Zawistowski 2008).  In an absolute sense, an animal rights advocate would argue for the complete abolition of any use of any animal for any gain. It is often said animal welfare advocates argue for bigger cages whereas animal rights advocates argue for empty cages.

Gary Francione (1998) notes that the modern animal rights movement sees animal rights as an ideal state that can be achieved through continued adherence to animal welfare measures.  “New welfarists”, he noted see “a causal connection between cleaner cages today and empty cages tomorrow” (p 45).  As an example, PETA—a staunchly animal rights organization—while strongly espousing a vegan diet (one that includes no animal flesh or by-products) supports advances in animal husbandry that promote the humane treatment of farmed animals (Zawistowski 2008)

Whether one adopts an animal rights or animal welfare perspective, animal protection is at the root. 

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector
Americans gave $260 billion in 2005—the highest amount ever in the U.S.  This represented a five percent increase from the 2004 figure of $248.52 billion.  Animal welfare and environmental causes accounted for $8.86 billion or 3.5%.  Of that $3.4 billion was donated to animal-related causes (Jo Sullivan, personal communication, June 13, 2008). 

Animal shelters and animal advocacy organizations depend on donations and grants to achieve their missions of improving the welfare and advocating for the rights of animals. 

Key Related Ideas
Vivisection—the literal meaning of vivisection is the cutting into or cutting up live organisms.  Currently it refers to the all experimental procedures that result in the injury and or death of animals (Fox 2000, Fox 1998)

The Three Rs—the Three R’s refers to reduction, refinement and replacement.  They were proposed by Russell and Burch in 1959 in an effort to find alternatives to the ways in which animals were used in research.  Reduction alternatives are research methods that use fewer animals to achieve the goals of the study.  Refinement alternatives are methods that minimize animal distress or that enhance animal well-being.  Replacement alternatives are methods that do not use live animals.  The Three Rs are seen as “a middle ground where scientists and animal welfare advocates can meet to reconcile the interests of human health and animal well-being” (Zurlo & Goldberg, p 7).

Speciesism—the discrimination against or exploitation of certain animal species by human beings, based on an assumption of mankind’s superiority. The term was coined by Richard D. Ryder Ph.D. in 1970 (Ryder 1998) and popularized by Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation.

Important People Related to the Topic 

  • René Descartes (1596-1650)—A philosopher in the seventeenth century who espoused that humans were distinctly different from and superior to other animals and the rest of the natural world.  He held that animals could not think; therefore, they could not feel.  This view led to many abuses to animals including surgeries and experiments during which the animals were immobilized but not anesthetized.


  • Peter Singer (1946-)—An Australian philosopher and author of the 1975 book Animal Liberation.


  • Ingrid Newkirk (1949-)—President and co-founder of PETA.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Related Web Sites

  • The Johns Hopkins University Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing has worked with scientists since 1981 to achieve the three R’s of humane science; replace live animals in experiments, reduce the number of animals in experiments and refine the experiments that are conducting with animal subjects to eliminate pain and distress (http://caat.jhsph.edu/). 


  • The Animal Welfare Information Center (AWIC) is mandated by the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) to provide information for improved animal care and use in research, testing, teaching, and exhibition http://awic.nal.usda.gov/

Bibliography and Internet Sources
Animal Rights History


Finsen, Susan and Lawrence Finsen, “Animal Rights Movement.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 50-53, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773

Fox, Michael A., “Antivivisectionism.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 73-75, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773

Fox, Michael A. “History Lesson: Looking At The Animal Rights Movement Over Time.” First Word: AV Magazine, Fall 2000.

Francione, Gary L., “Animal Rights and New Welfarism.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 45, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773

Regan, Tom, “Animal Rights.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 42-43, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773.

Ryder, Richard D., “Speciesism.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 320, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773

Sztybel, David, “Distinguishing Animal Rights from Animal Welfare.” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 43-45, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773

Zawistowski, Stephen. Companion Animals in Society. Clifton Park, NY: Thomson Delmar Learning, 2008.  ISBN: 9781418013707.

Zurlo, Joanne and Alan M. Goldberg. “Reduction, Refinement, and Replacement (the Three Rs).” In Encyclopedia of Animal Rights and Animal Welfare, edited by Marc Bekoff and Carron A. Meaney, 5-8, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN: 0313299773.