Animal Welfare, Animal Rights, What are we Talking about?


Animal welfare, animal rights, such expressions are in widespread use without necessarily explaining what they mean. This lack of precision may in fact be an intentional communication strategy: to be “against animal welfare” would be out of place. At a time when antispeciesism activists demonstrated at the end of August during a self-proclaimed day “for the end of speciesism”, it is worth considering the notions involved.

Animal well-being or animal welfare?

The French Ministry of Agriculture published a definition on its web-site, taken from a note by ANSES (Agence nationale de sécurité sanitaire de l’alimentation, de l’environnement et du travail – National agency for the sanitary safety of foodstuffs, the environment and the workplace). According to that definition, animal well-being would be a “positive mental and physical state linked to the satisfaction of the physiological and behavioural needs of animals, as well as their expectations. This state varies according to the perception of the situation by the animal”. Two important notions are included in this definition. On the one hand, the well-being includes an aspect of “mental health” not merely physical health. On the other hand, such well-being is defined according to the perception by the animal itself, from its point of view, one might say. A page on the ANSES web-site explains the distinction between “animal welfare” and “animal well-being”:

Animal welfare corresponds to the actions which humans undertake or perform with the intention of meeting the needs of animals such as they can be interpreted, like proper feeding, proper shelter, treatment. It is an anthropocentric approach which does not consider the feeling by the animal or any positive emotions”.

But behind this claim is a sizable question: is it honestly possible to speak in the name of the animal? What is the meaning for humans to claim to be able to understand the point of view of an animal?

The ANSES web-site provides some partial answers. Animal well-being would be visible by the observation of modifications in the behaviour of the animal, and by studying the physiology of the animal (state of health, production level etc.). These observations and studies being conducted by humans, it is difficult to claim to achieve an “animal point of view”.

One can however attempt to objectivise such observations in order to obtain quantitative measurements. This is what is being attempted by several associations or parapublic institutions. Thus, the Centre National de Référence pour le Bien-Etre Animal (CNRBEA – National Reference Centre for Animal Well-Being), established in France in 2017 following a law passed in 2014, provides the public with a considerable library of documents and articles on the subject of animal well-being. Among these, the “Welfare quality protocol” is an internationally recognized tool. For several species of farm animals, criteria, sorted into categories (food, shelter, sanitary conditions and “appropriate behaviour”) are observed and recorded by humans in order to achieve an overall mark for “well-being”.

Thus, from end to end, the process remains established and controlled by a chain of professional humans and bears witness to the concern, which is equally human, for the welfare of animals. The extension and refinement of research and studies on this subject are very important. One example among many: the CNRBEA search engine refers to a Korean article on “the analysis of the different facial expressions of horses as an indicator of well-being based on deep learning”!

Animal rights: A highly complex range of positions

Animal rights is a broad concept. It can be considered as a rejection of ill-treatment and of cruelty to animals, attention to the welfare conditions in farming (ethical concerns), protection of the environment suitable for wild species, regulation of the sampling of species by fishing and hunting (ecological concerns) up to the total rejection of animal experimentation including for pharmaceutical research. The concept may include the establishment of true “animal rights”, such rights being more or less inclusive. An animal rights declaration has been promoted since 1978 by the Fondation Droit Animal (Animal Rights Foundation). Its 8 articles remain quite general in their wording and are mainly concerned with welfare. A law adopted in France in November 2021 has reinforced the measures for countering ill-treatment. A scheduled end to entertainment involving wild animals (circuses, dolphinariums, bear or wolf tamers etc.) is also included in the law.

Philosophers have gone much further. Based on the idea that sentiency is shared equally between animals and humans, they therefore reject all suffering and all “exploitation” of animals. According to some authors, animals should be granted resident status in the city in the broadest sense’ (Zoopolis, the idea of a citizens’ community of humans and animals), taking into account their relational history within their species and between species… The refusal of any “exploitation” of animals comes from veganism (refusal to eat any product of animal provenance) with regard to individual behaviour, and antispeciesism at the ideological and political level. An anecdote reported in the press at the beginning of the summer illustrates the question of “exploitation”. The animalist party complained about the transport of tourists in horse-drawn carriages in tourist towns alleging that it is “incompatible with respect for the biological needs of the horses”. The manageress of a carriage rental firm received threats and decided to lodge a formal complaint.

Predation, a reality which threatens the arguments of antispeciesists

If the antispeciesist cause has any characteristic, it is that it is itself linked to humans: established by humans, to convince humans using human means. It would appear difficult to call for a total end to any “exploitation” of animals by humans whilst ignoring the reality of predation throughout the animal world. Reality is not the source for all standards, but the massive fact that such predation leads to either the acceptance of the differences between species or the need to completely transform the animal world by seeking to reduce suffering, even in the wild, through a programme to “change nature” which is promoted by certain antispeciesists.

Meanwhile, it can be noted that the legitimate concern for animal welfare is a manifestation of the moral nature of humans as a species.



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