Conversations with consumers; animal welfare vs. animal rights

Feb 17, 2012

You might not realize it, but if you are a rancher, you are the beef industry’s most valuable spokesperson.

According to countless public opinion surveys and research, ranchers, farmers and veterinarians are the most trusted voices on food safety and animal well-being issues among the consuming public.

If you find yourself in a position to talk with a nonag consumer, take the opportunity to have a conversation with them. But be prepared to cover the issue of animal welfare vs. animal rights, because it will certainly come up.

Many non-ag consumers see the concepts of “animal welfare” and “animal rights” as synonymous. Given society’s move away from the farm, consumers’ experiences with animals are often limited to their pets. People’s tendency to see their pets as family members makes the situation ripe for well-funded animal rights groups to exploit consumers’ confusion.

But the distinction is important to make, both for the continuation of animal agriculture and for the general education of the American consumer. Below are some key differences and topics which may come up in a conversation with a non-ag consumer.

The basics

Generally speaking, animal welfare is the idea that all domestic animals must be cared for, treated humanely, and have their needs met by their human keepers. This includes keeping them from thirst, hunger, disease, injury, and protecting them from harm by predators, weather and other exterior forces.

By comparison, the concept of animal rights is one where non-human animals have rights like or equivalent to those of humans. In extreme cases, animal rights advocates contend animal life is equivalent with or more important than human life.

Both movements came from the same historical roots. Though they went down different paths, they started in the same place.

The Industrial Revolution spawned considerable altruistic concern in the social consciousness of the U.S. and Britain. Child labor laws, abolitionist movements, the beginning of women’s suffrage and concern for the treatment of animals (particularly horses) all exploded around this time. Both the animal welfare and animal rights movements can trace their beginnings to this period of social change.

Philosophic origins

The majority of modern animal welfare is based on philosophies of duty or a form of social contract. Such philosophies have their roots in the works of classical philosophers like Aristotle, Socrates, Immanuel Kant and John Locke.

Domestication entails a duty of those who keep animals not otherwise capable of caring for themselves to provide for their needs and well-being. At the most basic, farmers care for their animals out of mutual dependency; the animal will not survive without the farmer, nor will the farmer survive if the animal is neglected. Many have likened domestication to the social contract theory which shaped our nation and its founders’ thinking.

Most modern animal rights movements have a utilitarian philosophy at their core—specifically to maximize the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number—even if the proponents are unaware of the connection.

Historically, utilitarian philosophers such as John Stuart Mill or Thomas Hobbes saw their ethics only applicable to humans they viewed capable of reason, thus excluding children, animals and the mentally ill, among others. More recent utilitarian authors, however, have extended the mindset to anyone or anything capable of experiencing happiness or suffering, regardless of its ability to reason.


Though animal welfare efforts are made on wide scales, the well being of individual animals is a concern.

The purpose of many animal welfare initiatives is to prevent the suffering of animals, both individual suffering and species-wide suffering.

Animal welfare supporters usually direct their efforts to domestic animals, but interest is extended to the welfare of wildlife, where and when wild animals and humans interact.

Animal rights proponents, however, frequently claim the life of an individual animal is nothing when compared to the state of the species or animals overall. While most animal rights groups will use the stories and images of individual animal suffering to further their messages, in practice, they subscribe to the utilitarian model “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”—no disrespect to Spock intended.

Animal rights supporters pay a lot of attention to both domestic animals and wildlife, often overstating the impact of human activity on the latter. In many situations, animal rights groups hold animal liberation sentiments. This motivation entails the end of animal domestication, the destruction of “unnatural” domestic animal breeds and species, and the complete separation of humans from nonhuman animals.


Animal welfare proponents strive for an improved working and living relationship with the animals under their care. Farmers, ranchers, agricultural researchers and scientists, veterinarians and food industry representatives are among the leading animal welfare advocates. The goal is to maintain the use of animals for food or as service or companion animals, but to ensure the animals’ best interests are seen to and satisfied in the process.

The goals of animal rights supporters differ based on the group or particular “flavor” of animal rights ideology being followed. That said, many headlining animal rights groups seek the end of animal agriculture entirely, humanity to move to an allvegetarian or vegan diet, the complete separation of human and non-human animals and the destruction of domestic breeds and species. Most are up-front about their goals and frequently quoted with such motivations.

When speaking with consumers about their concerns or curiosities, pay them the respect you’d want in any conversation. Avoid the scare tactic sound bites which are too often used in the food/ animal ag conversation— “HSUS is destroying America!” or “Meat is murder!” etc.—because their goal is a knee-jerk emotional reaction. Such tactics try to sidestep a listener’s rational consideration and in doing so, disrespects the listener and discredits the speaker.

Recognize that while individual consumers may be ignorant of many things about animal agriculture, most are rational people who simply have been misled by well-funded propaganda and/or have not been exposed to information relevant to make an informed decision.

If you take the time to listen to consumers and explain topics of concern, such as clearing up the animal welfare vs. animal rights confusion, you are far more likely to find a receptive audience and have a productive conversation.

Everyone—you, your fellow ranchers, the beef industry and consumers alike— will benefit from your time and effort. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor