Are animals better served through animal welfare efforts, or is their protection a matter requiring animals to have rights?
You may ask, “what is the difference?”
Historically, animals have been protected through animal welfare laws. This position recognizes the basic principal that animals are property and that someone—or something in the case of the government (wildlife) or an institution (animals used for research or food)—owns these animals. A theory that relies on welfare laws believes that animals can be well protected by the passage of laws that prevent or minimize their suffering. This includes the passage of strong laws barring abuse, torture and neglect, as well as laws to prevent suffering inherent in the use of animals for research and food production.
An alternative theory is that animals should be granted inherent rights, that they should have a basic right to be free from unjust confinement and bodily harm. This right would allow animals, through human advocates, to bring a suit on their own behalf to obtain a better quality of life, though not necessarily freedom.
In 2018, the issue of inherent rights is one that has achieved greater prominence and is currently vexing courts across the country with efforts to expand the traditional designation of animals as “property” to something much more. The Oregon Supreme Court has already recognized that animals are “sentient property” (a sentient being is one who is able to perceive or feel things), as have other jurisdictions in the United States. But is this recognition enough, or is it necessary to eliminate the designation of “property” altogether in order to best protect animals from harm?
While dozens of states are looking to pass better protections for animals through animal welfare efforts (including anti-cruelty laws, animal abuse reporting requirements, etc.), court cases are currently being considered in three states that could fundamentally change the status of animals by granting them legal “personhood” or independent rights.