The Future of the Animal Rights Movement

By Karen Davis, PhD

Thesis XII: A Philosophical Newsletter Vol 2, No 4, April 1995
North Adams State College, North Adams, MA*

Trying to predict the future of the animal rights movement involves seeing what changes have occurred in public opinion or action thus far regarding the moral status of animals in society. Encouragingly, a 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times observed that "In a century and a half of activism, the animal protection movement has transformed the national consciousness, altering how mainstream Americans regard other creatures" (Balzar 1993, A1). A new Los Angeles Times poll showed that half or more Americans surveyed oppose sport hunting and the wearing of fur, and that scientists and protectionists have become joined "in questioning humanity's most deeply embedded relationship with animals--as a source of food" (Balzar, A30).

Non-human animals
today are slaves.
Tomorrow they should
no longer be slaves.
--David Olivier
(1994, 11)

A good sign coming from the media was the 1994 radio commentary by "20/20's" Hugh Downs, in which he compared the growing realization that other animals "share an inner world as reasonable and as sensible as ours" to the realization which led European Whites finally to become "morally obligated to grant manumission to Black slaves," after centuries of justifying human slavery with the same arguments that are applied today to nonhuman animals. Such thoughts give hope to those who must contend with the flood of animal abuse reports pouring into their offices every day.

Yet three daunting realities confront the animal rights movement: (1) the huge and expanding number of animals at our mercy on this planet; (2) the expanding global human population; and (3) the fact that the animals are not a part of the liberation movement formed on their behalf.

At a time when entire species of animals in nature are being eliminated as a result of human pressure, the number of animals in human-created confinement systems--laboratories, factory farms, zoos, etc.--continues to grow. The use of biotechnology to propagate nonhuman animals for humans to use however they wish does not bode well and can only be exacerbated by the continued growth of human population. How can the animal rights movement ever hope to "manage" such an enormous number of individuals with a seemingly limitless capacity to materialize and rationalize its desires, however mistaken?

Unlike women and other subjugated human groups, the animals cannot organize to defend themselves. Any rebellion on the part of an individual animal, from the anguished outburst of a tormented "circus" elephant to an exhausted chicken's inability to lay enough eggs to justify her continued existence as a capital investment, is punishable by death. Thus, while every effort must be made to extend equal protection to all animals under the law, it is doubtful that the law can protect creatures whom it has defined in advance as property. Law professor Gary Francione has revealed "the extent to which the legal system has incorporated animals as property without any regard for their status as sentient beings different from inanimate objects (Francione 1995, 50).1 Even the so-called "interests" of other creatures count for nothing compared with human interests which, as David Olivier has said, "are put into the scales not as plain interests, but with the much stronger status of rights" (Olivier 1994, 15).

According to philosopher Peter Singer, "Animal liberation will not be accomplished until we persuade people that we don't have the right to dominate and exploit [other] animals" (Stallwood 1994, 31). How do we do this? One way is replacing the perception of nonhuman animals as "things" by revising our language to reflect the reality of other animals' lives--like saying "animals who" instead of "animals which" (Summit 1995). This could go a long way in changing society's treatment of other creatures, for it is one thing to eat "it," another thing to eat "him," or "her."

By thus upgrading the language, advocates encourage the public to see the harm in continuing to define other creatures legally as "property." Noting that "law not only enforces morality but defines it," attorney Steven Zak says, "Until the law protects the interests of animals, the animal-rights movement will by definition be radical" (Zak 1989, 74).

Morally, the animal rights movement has to be radical. Advocates must work to establish a way of living that would actually allow the other animals of the world to "fare well" with humans on this planet, creating an environment that nourishes other roots than those that have so far prevailed in our relationship with other creatures. Many more people will openly care about animals when they feel it is socially safe. Consider the concert organizer who was amazed by the outrage of national animal rights groups over the abuse of a chicken at a rock concert. Having known that something "bad" was being planned for the chicken he said, "We would have done something sooner if we thought people would care this much about a chicken" (Guinto 1995, 7). In the light of such episodes, every affirmative action for animals is a major step. When we "stick up for chickens," we increase the amount of moral courage in the world.


  1. Gary Francione's Animals, Property, and the Law (1995) offers a vivid historical analysis of the status of nonhuman animals as legal property. It explains the legal, philosophic, and economic difference between "welfare" and "rights," and why the distinction is not merely academic but of critical importance for animals, ethics, and the future. Francione is a Professor of Law at Rutgers University Law School.

Works Cited

  • Balzar, John. 1993. "Creatures Great and--Equal?" Los Angeles Times. Sept. 25. A1, A30.

  • The Manumission Of The Jungle." ABC News 20/20. May 29. Rpt. International Society for Animal Rights Report. (Winter 1995): 4--5.

  • Francione, Gary L. 1995. Animals, Property, and the Law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 50.

  • Guinto, Joseph. 1995. "The chicken stops here." The Met. Dallas, TX. February 23, 7.

  • Olivier, David, 1994. "All Animals Shall be Equal: On Animal Liberation, Welfarism and Peter Singer." Cahiers Antispecistes: reflexion et action pour la liberation animale No. 10 (September): 11--18.

  • Stallwood, Kim W. 1994. "A Conversation with Peter Singer, Part II." The Animals' Agenda. 14.3: 30--31.

  • Summit for the Animals. 1995. Resolution: "Adopting Language Which Recognizes Animals As Individuals And Not As Property Or Things." Kansas City, MO. April 6--8. See PoultryPress. 5.2 (Spring/Summer 1995): 6.

  • Zak, Steven. 1989. "Ethics And Animals." The Atlantic Monthly (March): 69--74.

*This article was revised to include Gary Francione's book Animals, Property, and the Law.