Animal Rights, Welfare, and Abuse Essay

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The issue of animal rights, including issues of their welfare and the need to protect them from abuse, first emerged as an ethical issue for criminal justice in the 20th century, becoming a central concern for animal rights activists and for society more generally. The role of the law and regulations in articulating standards of ethical treatment for animals presents significant ethical challenges as does their implementation in practice. Those concerned with human-animal studies focus upon the rights of animals and issues of how humans view animals, exploring speciesism and anthropocentrism and their impacts in the areas of animal welfare and abuse.

Many millions of animals are kept as household pets globally, while at the same time millions of other animals are slaughtered annually for human consumption. Society’s view and use of animals as food has been argued to obscure individuals’ perception of the ethical issues surrounding the sacrificing of the lives of one species for another. This presents the clearest example of how “human speciesism,” which is the idea that nonhuman animals are not afforded the same protections as humans, raises important ethical issues. A further ethical issue is the ability of a society to ignore the conditions under which animals are raised for consumption and the adequacy (or lack thereof) of current laws to protect animals from cruelty and neglect. Legal systems penalize few acts against animals as serious crimes and only those that are socially unacceptable. Ethical issues raised in the mistreatment of animals are thus often ignored by the law. Many acts of cruelty and neglect are abusive and subject to regulation but not criminal sanctions. The remainder are seen as neither abusive nor criminal, particularly acts of institutionalized harm to animals that arise in preparing animals for human consumption, an almost invisible process for most consumers.

Animals can be conceptualized as falling into several distinct but at times intertwined categories, depending upon their relation to human society, including domestic pets, farm animals, captive animals in zoos, animal athletes, and animal performers, as well as animals raised for human consumption, animals in the wild, and animals used in scientific research. While criminal codes sanction a limited number of forms of animal abuse, it is generally humane societies and societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals that regulate and penalize harms committed against animals. These groups wield considerable power in addressing wrongs committed against animals in society but do so largely through education and voluntary compliance rather than prosecution. Animal welfare laws have lagged behind rising societal expectations for the humane treatment of animals. National and international organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), World Wildlife Federation (WWF), and Greenpeace have made significant efforts to protect animals in the wild from abuse, exploitation, and extinction despite limited international law addressing the mistreatment of various water and land species.

One of the key ethical debates regarding animal rights centers on societal obligations to provide humane treatment for animals while simultaneously engaging in social control of abandoned and violent animals. Further, humane societies use various forms of euthanasia to kill approximately 10 million unwanted or abandoned animals each year in the United States, while at the same time pet owners spend $50 billion dollars on their animals.

Animal abuse laws in North America and Europe reflect societal ambivalence to the plight of animals other than individual pets. Currently there is a significant gap between the law as written and the law as enforced. Corporations which produce and process animals for slaughter are generally regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and criminal prosecutions are rare since these companies are increasingly large-scale operations upon which society depends for a primary component of its food supply.

Criminologists concerned with animal rights, welfare, and abuse have emerged from the field of green criminology and human-animal studies. Green criminologists link environmental issues such as pollution and global warming to the decline of some species and extinction of others. They point to the lack of ethical concern for the plight of wild creatures in international treaties and codes governing hunting and fishing in Earth’s oceans.

The unregulated overfishing of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in Canada by huge international factory ships, for example, decimated a vibrant fishery—a major source of the world’s fish—in a few decades. International condemnation of such practices and existing laws has done little to stop commercial exploitation of fish, whales, and other ocean species because many countries do not accept that it is ethically wrong to fish species to extinction. For a variety of reasons, the killing of certain species is widely considered ethically unacceptable. Nevertheless, the laws protecting these species are inconsistent, and divergent cultural views of the ethics of harvesting animals make application and enforcement of effective moratoriums problematic. Whale hunting has been condemned, but it has not stopped some countries from continuing to hunt despite the work of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). While international outrage resulted in a ban on the practice of clubbing baby seals for their pelts, each year in Japan 20,000 dolphins are still slaughtered largely for human consumption.

The ethical issues raised by the use of animals in scientific and cosmetic experimentation have been the focus of sustained controversy. Increasingly, animal rights extremism, including attacks on research laboratories and threats against lab personnel, have occurred. Zemiology or the study of social harms examines this difficult interspecies issue. Likewise, animals displayed in zoo settings, whether breeding zoos or other facilities, have raised ethical debates because there are few legal protections guaranteeing the rights of animals to appropriate facilities. Many jurisdictions in the United States permit the private ownership of wild animals while legal regulation of welfare of these animals is not stringently enforced.

For some in society the use of animals as food is unacceptable. The ethical dilemma concerns the slaughter of animals to transform them into nourishment for humans whose needs are viewed by the majority as transcending the value of the lives of animals. Ethical concerns regarding inhumane conditions in the transportation of animals to slaughter and the methods of killing animals have been raised. Currently, electric shock and the use of bolt pistols are the predominant means used to slaughter livestock. In North America societal dependence on livestock as a source of food is reflected in the annual slaughter of approximately 36 million cattle. While there are variations by jurisdiction, there is very little government regulation of the killing of animals for human consumption.

The focus is primarily upon the inspection of animal processing facilities and the protection of humans. The practice of slaughtering horses for human consumption emerged as an issue in 2013, when horsemeat turned up in inspections of European fast food burgers; the practice of killing horses for human consumption was not met with a general outcry, as horsemeat consumption has always been an accepted practice in Europe, though many consumers were concerned by the presence of uninspected horsemeat deliberately mislabeled as beef. In the United States, horse slaughter is not widely practiced, though a 2007 ban was lifted in 2013. In Canada, however, horses are routinely slaughtered for human consumption in several meatpacking facilities and is a $70 million dollar industry that has been largely invisible to most consumers.

Animal abuse can take many forms including psychological and emotional abuse, neglect, and maltreatment. The criminal justice system has not been an effective tool for dealing with crimes against animals in the form of abuse, neglect, and cruelty. Recently, criminologists, particularly Piers Bierne, have established the ethical issues raised by harms to animals as central to criminological inquiry. A growing body of research has also provided clear links between the abuse of animals and further violence in humans from delinquency to serial murder. The ethical dilemmas confronting a society that views some species as loveable while at the same time eating other species are complex. The close relationship of humans to many nonhuman species and their interdependence has generated deep and intriguing questions of how the criminal justice system should but currently does not protect animals across the many environments in which they exist.


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  2. Bierne, Piers. Confronting Animal Abuse: Law, Criminology and Animal-Human Relationships. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009.
  3. Francione, G. and R. Garner. The Animal Rights Debate. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  4. Linzey, A., ed. The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence. Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2009.
  5. Pierpoint, H. and J. Maher. “Animal Abuse.” In Handbook on Crime, F. Brookman, M. Maguire, H. Pierpoint, and T. Bennett, eds. Uffculme, UK: Willan, 2010.
  6. Regan, T. The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  7. Shapiro, K. and M. DeMello. “The State of Animal Human Studies.” Society and Animals, v.18/3 (2010).
  8. Sollund, R. Global Harms: Speciesism and Ecological Crime. New York: Nova, 2008.

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