The fate of Harambe, the 17-year-old gorilla who was shot dead in a Cincinnati zoo on May 28, has inspired much debate. Some adamantly defend the zoo workers' actions, while others point to the hypocrisy of outrage when many sentient animals are killed each day without drawing any attention whatsoever. Seeing Harambe's face as an innocent animal who was so quickly sacrificed has undeniably struck a chord with many. So, despite some claims that animal rights is the least important issue, the attention that the gorilla's life received indicates that people are ready to hear the truth: Non-human animals are sentient beings with lives that do, in fact, matter.
All this is another indication of how interest in the issue of animal rights has grown significantly in the past half-century. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, nearly a third of Americans now believe that non-human animals should be given the same rights as people. That's a considerable increase since 2008, when only a fourth of Americans shared this view.
Taking full consideration of this is pretty awe-inspiring. I chose to be vegetarian as a kid because I felt motivated to protect animals, and so much has changed since I felt like I was the only vegetarian in the world as I grew up in the 1990's in small town Alabama. We're quickly making progress, yet animals are literally being tortured to deliver meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, and fish to dinner plates. Even worse is happening to some for fur and other animal byproducts that humans can easily and comfortably live without. It's clear that people are concerned, and the following reasons show why animal rights should be a central topic of debate.
Established Sentience in Non-Human Animals
Imagine desperately needing to move, yet you were confined to a cage where you had to live in your own urine and feces, never experiencing simple pleasures beyond fear and pain. Many farm animals experience that and worse tortures. Being sentient beings, they are aware of their needs and wants; they fight for their lives to the end.
This isn't simply imagining what it would be like. Animal sentience is an established fact. Psychology Today reported in 2013 that we've had plenty of data for a while to declare that non-human animals are sentient beings. The prominent scientists at the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness declared that many non-human animals are conscious. It's been shown that animals can worry and lose sleep. Like people, non-human animals will fight to live, and many species have problem-solving capabilities.
A Staggering Number of Beings Who Suffer
If you're like me, you get upset and even outraged when you see just one person suffer, and you do what you can to help them. Now imagine that happening a billion times over. Given that the sentience of many non-human animals is widely accepted, people should care deeply about preventing the massive amounts of suffering that are currently being inflicted on animals. In the U.S. alone, each year more than 78 billion sea animals and over eight billion land animals are killed for food. That's not millions, but billions. That ends up to a tragic, extreme amount of suffering among sentient beings every single day in the country.
No one issue facing the world is entirely independent of the others. The case for animal rights also stands alongside other forms of prejudice as an issue that needs to be addressed. Having prejudice against others for their citizenship, race, sexual orientation, gender, or species can have far-reaching effects on society.
An intersectional approach to animal rights is key. Social justice advocate and writer Christopher-Sebastian McJetters recently stated, "Intersectional justice isn't some 'sect' of veganism. Framing it as such is reductive and overly simplistic. Intersectionality is an analytical approach that challenges the root causes of oppression through the lens of people who live daily with multiple intersecting oppressions...people who often lack the social, sexual, economic, and academic mobility of those who needlessly antagonize and harass them."
It's not just animals' lives that are at stake when we disregard animal rights as a core issue. Life on earth as we know it is at stake. Livestock production is posing a rather big risk to human health through the overuse of antibiotics. When bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics because of their overuse, the effectiveness of the medicine is compromised. Also, the high amount of pollution of both water and land caused by livestock production threatens human health.
The damage that's being done to the planet by animal agriculture is extreme. Environmental advocates like Al Gore and James Cameron decided to go vegan because of this staggering harm. Approximately 30 percent of the world's ice-free land surface is used to farm chickens, pigs, and cows for slaughter and human consumption. Furthermore, this livestock production, which includes eggs and dairy, takes up more than a third of the fresh water in the world. Time reports that livestock production has a bigger impact on Planet Earth than any other activity humans do.
At least 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock, according to a report that was released by the United Nations. That's more than the combined emissions from all forms of human transportation, including cars, planes, and trains. Since it's widely believed that we need to act soon before there's no turning back on global warming, this is a solid reason all need to be concerned about the harm caused by a disregard for animal rights.
Where We're at Now
Some leading politicians seem to be getting the message about the importance of animal rights, but we have a long way to go. No current Republican Presidential frontrunners seem to have addressed the issue of animal rights in a serious way, although Donald Trump did seem to mock the cause in a Tweet, stating, "Ringling Brothers is phasing out their elephants. I, for one, will never go again. They probably used the animal rights stuff to reduce costs." Hillary Clinton's campaign website claims that the way our society treats animals is a reflection of our humanity, even going on to state, "Hillary has a strong record of standing up for animal rights." Meanwhile, the website of Bernie Sanders doesn't address the issue, but Zach Groff, a protester who interrupted Bernie's May 2016 rally in California said, "He claims to be a progressive, but you cannot be a progressive if you oppose animal rights." Sanders did receive a recent 100 percent rating for his voting on animals in a Humane Society report.
It's clear that animal rights should be a core national moral issue, not a side topic that's viewed as less important than the current topics of debate. Activists, animal rights organizations, and others will need to continue raising awareness and bringing these facts to the forefront of debates in order to ensure that it becomes a core issue.