Animal Welfare and Conservation: An Essential Connection

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Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Vietnam­ese Buddhist monk, is fond of suggesting that “there is no path to peace—peace is the path.” In this article, I pose a question that one likely encounters in a variety of forms if one walks the path of peace, which could also have been referred to by this Buddhist master as non-violence or ahimsa (non-harming). The specific form of the question I ask here is one, I suspect, that every reader of this jour­nal will have heard at one time or another—what is the relevance of “animal rights” to the rich set of concerns we call out with words like “environmental,” “conser­vation” and “ecological”?

This is a question that arises constantly in the “Animal Law” course I teach at Harvard Law School and in the “Religion and Animals” course I teach at Harvard Summer School. The question constantly was asked in the veterinary ethics courses and the “ani­mals and public policy” graduate seminars I directed for a decade at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. It also looms large in the minds of the students and scholars who today are enrich­ing the burgeoning field of animals studies, such as the undergraduates and graduates whose concern for other-than-human animals drive the Anthrozoology programs now preoccupying me at Canisius College in Buffalo.

I do not claim that the particular answer to this question adumbrated in this article will convince ev­ery environmentally conscious person. Even the more extended, diverse arguments I make in the book from which a portion of this article is drawn, Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know, may not convince ev­eryone. I do hope to invite a wide range of readers into open-minded consideration of animal protection is­sues.

And I do believe that a serious discussion of “ani­mal rights” and their relevance to environmental/conservation/ecological concerns is part of a peace-constituted path essential to human health and thriv­ing. I suggest this because over the last decades, I have met countless leaders and rank-and-file animal pro­tection people from all over the world whose lives are the richer for their work. Many of them today wonder what might open the minds and hearts of the environ­mentally-conscious who take joy in “minding nature” but, for some reason or another, shy away from no­ticing—or at least taking seriously—animal protection causes and complaints that people around the world group under the rubric “animal rights.”

So what is the relationship of animal rights to envi­ronmental concerns? And what, indeed, do those in the environmental and conservation communities, as well as everyone else, need to know about animal rights? I contend that there are many reasons that individual humans, as members of a most powerful and domi­nant form of animal life on this shared Earth, need to know other animals’ lives and realties. I also contend that the question of animal protection (a synonym for, but also more generic term than, “animal rights”) is deeply important for the environmental protection community. I rush to acknowledge that I am fortunate to know many conservationists and environmental­ists (for example, the two law professors described in the anecdotes below) who are animal protectionists in every sense precisely because they fully grasp and support what I suggest in both this article and Animal Rights. But I also know, after decades of working on a range of causes and edu­cational topics, that at times animal protection efforts and discussions have been marginalized, even excluded, by some people who are popularly called environmentalists or conservationists in ways that are not unlike how many other educa­tors, scientists, veteri­nary administrators and religious leaders dismiss animal protection as sentimental or misguided in some way.

Though I feel on safe ground observing that ten­sions and unresolved issues remain, I relate here two anecdotes as a kind of “evidence” that such marginal­ization and dismissal are still significant factors today. At an annual animal law gathering at Harvard Law School in February 2011, a conservationist affiliated with a major midwestern American law school confid­ed that his conservation colleagues on campus oppose establishing an animal law course at their university. Such opposition is troubling for many reasons, but one is this—because two-thirds of the almost two hun­dred accredited American law schools and virtually all of the top-rated institutions already have such cours­es, proposals to offer an animal law course are hardly “radical” and controversial any longer. Further, every­ one of these courses of which I’m aware has been insti­tuted because of student demand. What conceivably justifies this law professor’s conservation colleagues opposing students seeking what they (the students) consider relevant education of a type already offered at a majority of similar institutions?

In an entirely separate conversation at that same conference, another faculty member at a major Amer­ican law school lamented that even in the ecology-conscious Northwest of the United States there are conservationists known for aggressive challenges to power plant emissions of greenhouse gases who sim­ply refuse to recognize the impact of greenhouse gas to emissions from factory farming. What is tragic about this, of course, is that there are major reports, such as the 2006 report of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, that reveal startlingly high figures for the emission of greenhouse gases from industrialized agriculture—in fact, as the FAO report indicated, the industrialized agriculture sector out emits, as it were, the entire transportation sector. Couple this with the tremendous pollution and social dislocation problems created by industrialized agriculture as described in a 2008 report published jointly by the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and environmentalists and conservationists alike have reason to join active citizens in the animal movement in decrying factory farming.

Although I have friends who are fond of suggesting lightheartedly that “the plural of anecdote is data,” I do not claim that these two anecdotes fully represent what conservation-minded people think about animal law. In fact, such stories in no way exhaust the com­plex issues arising at the intersection of animal rights, on the one hand, and environmental concerns, on the other. But these two anecdotes do suggest that today there still is tension for some conservation-oriented citizens when it comes to the worldwide social move­ment that in so many circles goes under the rubric “animal rights.”

Whatever name one gives this social movement, it has been marginalized for some time in important circles. A well-known early example in which a con­servation-focused voice derided animal protection ap­proaches is found in Baird Callicott’s 1980 essay “Ani­mal Liberation: A Triangular Affair.” Callicott worked in this essay to distinguish what he clearly viewed as the superior qualities of “holistic environmental eth­ics” relative to the weaknesses and misguided features of the animal movement’s concern for individuals. In animal protection circles, too, there are also well-known examples of reaction and dismissal going the other way, so to speak—one example is a comment by Tom Regan, who became a pre-eminent animal rights philosopher when he published The Case for Animal Rights in 1983. Regan suggested that those who ad­vocate the interests or “rights” of species or the “good of the biotic community” are guilty of “environmental fascism” because they thereby override the “rights” of individual animals.

Importantly, each of these distinguished philosophers has since written much that indicates he recognizes the rhe­torical overkill of these early claims. Puzzlingly, however, the spirit of dismissal still moves some, such that these cous­in social movements have yet to walk arm-in-arm together. In effect, allowing relatively small differences to tyrannize the possibilities of these two major social movements work­ing together is to miss the genius of each movement and thereby forego the obvious synergies these two move­ments can create when they work together. (I develop this more fully in an essay included in Ignoring Nature, ed. by Marc Bekoff, [Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, forthcom­ing].)

Consider, in light of what follows, two pos­sible conclusions. First, any claim to animal protection that does not foreground conservation and environmental insights, as well as consider the plight of human animals is a violation of the animal movement’s spirit, internal values and logic (humans are, after all, animals, too). Second, any form of conser­vation or “environmentalism” that privileges only our own species (that is, privileges all and only members of the human species and no other animals at all) also violates the spirit, internal values and logic of the con­servation and environmental movements, as well as that of science generally. Why? Because such positions are not merely unscientific, but also anti-scientific, for each repudiates the key tenet of the life sciences—that the animal kingdom includes both humans and other animals in the community of life and in shared eco­systems that are in every meaningful sense integrated and interdependent.


As I contemplated how to answer the question, “What do people need to need to know about the im­portant but controversial notion of animal rights?” I considered three things. First, I thought of the hun­dreds, perhaps thousands, of conversations on this topic that I have had with people in ordinary walks of life from all over the world. These have helped me ap­preciate the great variety of views on this topic.

Second, I thought about what I had learned during several decades of studying animal topics in various educational contexts. I spent years in Oxford, England, studying the academic side of various issues, and I then spent a decade teaching in a veterinary school. At about the same time, I taught the subject of “animal law” at some of my country’s best law schools. I also had the privilege of lecturing at dozens of uni­versities and law schools as well as in public confer­ences, before thousands of people.

Third, I looked at hundreds of books, printed ar­ticles and Web sites that used the phrase “animal rights” because I wanted to see whether people were talking to—or past—one another.

Based on all of this background and research, I came to the conclusion that the following issues are the most important ones, and thus comprise “what ev­eryone needs to know” about animal rights.

Animal rights is an ancient topic that recently has taken a special twist. The phrase “animal rights” has been, and still is, employed most often to describe moral rights and social values in favor of compassion and against cruelty. The modern twist is the emer­gence of conversations where the term means all of this and more, namely, the possibility of legal rights for some or all non-human animals. The latter are im­portant protections, and today there is a very active debate over how often and to what extent our different human soci­eties might put specific legal rights and other protections into place for specific animals.

This debate about “animal rights” as “specific legal rights” colors what many influ­ential people say about the term, but this spe­cial and, I think, impor­tant sense of the term still remains second­ary to the more generic meaning of “moral pro­tections.” “Animal rights” in the sense of moral rights is the larger and more fundamental issue, and specific legal rights for specific non-human individuals reflect but do not encompass all of animal rights as moral rights.

Second, the debate over animal rights often is po­larized, but only in some circles. In those places where polarization impacts how people talk and hear one an­other as this issue is discussed, the advocates and ac­tivists at opposite ends of the long continuum of views continue to debate in ways that fuel even further po­larization.

Third and most relevant to today’s use of “animal rights” I found that many people do connect with each other when talking about animal rights. Fur­ther, many people recog­nize discussions about animal rights as being pro-people. This conclu­sion will seem counterin­tuitive to some, perhaps even an outright false­hood to others. But if you explore the debates over animal rights at length, you will notice that those who make the claim that animal rights can be pro-people argue their point in several different ways. Some argue this must be so because humans are “animals.” Others argue that talk of ani­mal rights affirms life, which of course has decidedly pro-human features. Still others argue that concerns to protect the living beings outside our own species honor humans in a special way by first affirming and then strengthening our ethical nature.

Lots of people also sense that the phrase “ani­mal rights” is not a complicated phrase, but instead a phrase that easily and naturally means something very simple and basic along the lines of “protections for other living beings.” Others think the phrase most truly means “we should listen to the voice of animals.” Veterinary students often told me that “animal rights” is “a valuable term,” but when they use it they risk con­demnation by some classmates and, tragically, mem­bers of their veterinary school faculty and administra­tion.

Many people feel “animal rights” has undeniable appeal but that it is compromised whenever animal activists use violence on behalf of “the cause.” Quite a few who mentioned violence commented on how rare such violence was, and then answered their own concerns by asking out loud, “Why let a few violent people control whether we use a term that describes a movement that was originally non-violent and today remains overwhelmingly so?”

Today animal protection is a worldwide social movement. At times, active citizens in this movement challenge deeply cherished values and longstanding practices. Some other citizens react strongly to such challenges, which suggests that the risk of polarization is not going to disappear, no matter how effective any argument is at getting all of us to talk fairly, fully, and respectfully about the basic issue of our relationships with the life out beyond the species line.

What is most sorely needed is a willingness to recognize that the debate over “animal rights” is one in which fundamental values are being worked out. Without question, some people feel strongly that mere mention of the topic is a repudiation of humans and thus deeply immoral. But I found that many more peo­ple feel this kind of thinking focused solely on humans falls short of humans’ ethical possibilities.

Thus, I think everyone needs to know how many people find multiple connections with the world in concerns for “animal rights.” Because the phrase works for so many not as a repudiation of humans but as an affirmation of humans’ special abilities to care about others—whether those “others” be human or other-than-human—the phrase opens doors to the rich, more-than-human world that is out beyond our species. For them, animal rights is a win-win situa­tion, not an either/or matter.

Particularly revealing about those people who find the notion of animal rights to be a connecting, rather than a disconnecting, one is the range of connections affirmed by “animal rights.” Of course, one set of con­nections is with other animals. As the English histo­rian Marc Gold wrote in 1995, “The term animal rights is nothing more than a useful kind of shorthand for a movement based on the recognition that non-human animals live purposeful emotional lives and are as ca­pable of suffering as humans. . . . kindness and tol­erance for those different and weaker than ourselves are amongst the highest possible human aspirations.” (Mark Gold, Animal Rights: Extending the Circle of Compassion, [Oxford: Jon Carpenter, 1995], p. 73.)

But the connections by no means stop there. The phrase “animal rights” also connected people with “na­ture,” “the environment,” the local ecological world in and beyond their backyards, and, incredibly, with oth­er humans in a variety of ways. Of great significance for the future, it seemed to me, was a pattern of chil­dren pushing their parents to consider “the animals.”

These connections were not always called out ex­plicitly. Yet even when these connections were only implicit, they were every bit as real, personal, and mo­tivating. Both adults and children found animal rights to be one way to honor the world as—to use a phrase from the recently deceased visionary Thomas Berry—“a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”

So one point is that everyone needs to know that polarization over animal rights need not be the domi­nant feature of the debate. Instead, the dominant fea­ture of most discussions about animal rights is the common question, “What is the meaning of life?” My experience in exploring the animal rights debate has taught me that people ask this question because they feel emotionally committed to those around them. People recognize that daily actions, choices, and work can express human imagination and our considerable ability to care, and they know that we thrive when we connect to some larger project that began before our own life and which will continue after it.

Ethical concerns for other living beings, whether human or not, provide such possibilities. Many people today understand “animal rights,” however one de­fines it, to be a path of caring that leads to the fullest possible future. They have found that this form of life not only fosters virtues but in actual practice sustains the prospering of human imagination. My own experi­ence is that in the class, as in life, inquiring beyond the species line prompts healthy, communicative forms of thinking and rationality, rather than the destructive, manipulative, instrumental forms of thinking so char­acteristic of selfishness and a small soul.

When humans experience others—again, it mat­ters not whether these “others” are human or members of some other species—paradoxically this experience of getting beyond the self allows humans to become as fully human as we can be, that is, human in the con­text of a biologically rich world full of other interesting living beings. As Viktor Frankl said in his influential Man’s Search for Meaning, “self-actualization is pos­sible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” This is true not only for human individuals but also for the human species as a whole. This has in fact been the message of many religions, many ethical systems, and various wisdom traditions anchored in small-scale so­cieties.

Through writing I came to understand that animal rights, as most people described it to me, is about con­necting to the meaning of life.


A few words in conclusion—just as there is a sur­passingly important insight driving the suggestion that there is no path to peace because peace is the path, so too one might suggest that environmental and animal protection concerns are not merely vehicles by which we get to a better, human-centered world—rather, they are themselves constitutive of a better whole and our larger and truest community.

  • Paul Waldau

    Paul Waldau is an educator, scholar, and activist working at the intersection of animal studies, law, ethics, religion, and cultural studies. He is an associate professor at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, where he is the senior faculty for the Master of Science program in Anthrozoology. He is the author of five books and co-editor of A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics.

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