Welfare & Rights - A Convenient Distinction

A few years back, in an effort to more fully live my values and apply my work as a model to more meaningful and altruistic use, I began endorsing and promoting the campaign efforts of animal charities I admired. Some were eager to collaborate, and their initiatives ran the gamut, from ending the dog and cat meat trades, to rescuing and rehabilitating moon bears exploited for their bile, to advocating for a vegan diet and lifestyle. In working with these charities, I had the opportunity to connect with numerous staff members and engage in discussions that highlighted their areas of passionate concern while also touching on the limitations of their compassion, protection, and respect.

One theme that surfaced a number of times during these interactions was the distinction drawn between animal welfare and rights. One organization, World Animal Protection, has been at the forefront of condemning the exploitation of wildlife in the tourism and entertainment trades. After supporting their campaign to discourage the highly popular practice of elephant riding (a seemingly innocuous activity that is prefaced by abducting baby elephants from their families and beating them into submission to perform tasks they are not naturally conditioned to do), I was dismayed to learn that at the ensuing South by Southwest Eco conference, World Animal Protection would be the event’s “humane food sponsor,” thereby providing and encouraging the consumption of humanely raised animal products (”Join us for a breakfast of cage-free eggs, gestation crate-free pork and dairy produce from humanely raised cows. A humane breakfast always tastes better.”). Yes, you heard that right. An organization with the ambitiously lofty name of World Animal Protection was in turn, blithely promoting the consumption of said animals. I was stunned and disappointed. After all, last I checked, cows, pigs, chickens, fish, goats and sheep were still very much animals, universally abused and exploited as they may be. I asked my contact there how an initiative like this could possibly align with the group’s commitment to protecting the world’s animals and was told that:

“World Animal Protection is an animal welfare organization, rather than an animal rights organization, and we’re not a vegetarian organization. Our mission is to end animal suffering, not all animal use. Also, as a practical matter, we find that many more people are receptive to messages about buying more animal-friendly foods ― or even reducing their overall consumption ― than are receptive to the idea of eliminating animal products altogether. It’s precisely because we want to improve the lives of animals on a mass scale, especially those in farming systems, that we’re calling on consumers to choose more humane food options and working with those engaged in the food industry to change practices for the better. “

Knowing that she was heavily invested in the elephant campaign we collaborated on together, I asked her if these purportedly humane options were akin to asking mahouts (elephant keepers) to beat their charges a little less forcefully/frequently or for tourists to ride the elephants for a shorter period of time. The question, unsurprisingly, elicited no response.

But therein lies what ails me. Why are some animal charities so emboldened to criticize companies for encouraging the abuse of animals for entertainment ( see http://www.worldanimalprotection.us.org/wildlife-not-entertainers for a thorough rebuke of TripAdvisor and its promotion and sale of tickets to wildlife shows ) or individuals for funding the puppy mill industry instead of adopting from shelters, yet reluctant or altogether disinterested in discouraging the rampant abuse and suffering inherent in the animal agriculture industry, where over 58 billion animals, be them free range, grass fed, pasture raised or industrially farmed, are killed each year at 2-5% of their natural life expectancy and whose fearful trembling and haunting screams are well documented through undercover footage by PETA, Mercy For Animals and others. Wish as we may, no living being is gently cuddled into nuggets or filets, and no death is painless and non-violent, especially when the victim is fearful and unwilling. How can organizations that brand themselves as protectors of the world’s animals turn a calloused eye to their exploitation and perpetuate the dangerous myth of humane slaughter? As with the elephants, aren’t “animal use” and “animal suffering” quite inextricably intertwined? Can a group credibly and legitimately uphold a mission to “end animal suffering” when they are simultaneously active purveyors of said suffering?

Which begs the question - is this delineation between welfare and rights made simply to assuage consciences and pat ourselves on the back for a minimal job well done? After all, it’s infinitely easier to condemn shark finning, wildlife poaching and the dog meat trade when we aren’t engaged in it ourselves, than it is to take a stand against violence and suffering we ourselves are complicit in on a daily basis. Is it fair then to finger point and lecture others on the merits of doing better by our animal friends when we balk at the idea of reflecting on our own behavior and “doing better” ourselves? One would hardly take seriously a person who claims to love dogs but dines on their flesh, or a fur wearer who gushes over her affection for foxes, rabbits and mink, so why are omnivores so insistent on being labelled as humane and compassionate animal lovers when they traffic in and derive pleasure from their suffering? And why must animal charities, in their drive to appease and fundraise, bow to these pressures rather than use their platform to advocate for sincere and meaningful change? Shouldn’t values be shaped by what is right and just rather than what is expedient and advantageous?

To be fair, World Animal Protection is hardly alone in this convenient distinction. In Miami, Florida, I was routinely invited to dog rescue fundraisers held at steakhouses and seafood joints. Cognitive dissonance at it’s glaring finest. When I moved to Hong Kong last year, I spoke with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) about potentially collaborating on some of their initiatives and asked them if they extended their compassion to other animals aside from dogs and cats, to which they replied that if a pig was badly injured on the side of the road, they would be dispatched to aid in his or her care. When I questioned why that compassion wasn’t extended to fully healthy and vital pigs trapped in the animal agriculture industry, I was met with a simple shrug and a common refrain - “we are an animal welfare organization, not an animal rights organization.” In another instance, I was asked by a local dog rescue (also with an ambitiously all-encompassing name) to help promote their charity fundraiser, only to learn that once again, animals would be served as food. I was seeing a clear trend towards groups that wanted to see or portray themselves as animal loving that were decidedly not. But such are the neigh-immutable powers of carnism and selective compassion that enable us to love our pets while eating pigs and wearing cows.

I am not an overly religious man, but I live by the Golden Rule. And I know my “welfare” is heavily predicated on my “right” to exist without imminent mortal harm befalling me. The same can be said for animals, regardless of how ornate and expansive their captivity may be. As Buddha said, “All beings tremble before violence. All fear death. All love life.” We may find temporary solace in the idea that we bestow upon these beings a good life before we rob them of their breath and being, but sometimes in life, the well-worn cliche works in reverse. The destination can in fact be just as important as the journey, and when the destination is horrific and violent, it’s entirely unwelcome and rather misleading to construe it as even remotely humane.

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