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Animal Rights vs. Animal Welfare

I believe that everyone in the animal rights community has a similar long-term vision for the planet, with their own unique ways of contributing to the realization of this vision. However, I feel like many of the concepts and propositions of the animal welfare movement are beginning to inadvertently undermine the fundamental premise of this vision, and this has compelled me to voice my concerns directly to the community.

To be clear, I am not anti animal welfare. I'm just pro animal rights, and this is very different work, as welfare issues fall squarely on the other end of the animal advocacy spectrum from rights issues. Accordingly, I think that every rights advocate should carefully consider how much of their valuable energy they want to expend on welfare issues, given some of the inherent conflicts there are to the rights cause.

As just one case in point, California's Prop 2 is a flagship example of how the slight relief of suffering for layer hens on the long-term (six years to be exact), could actually equate to the promotion of more animals being killed on the short-term. How so? Because several of our beloved animal advocacy groups continue to endorse the "humane" housing and slaughter of all farm animals who are exploited under their seal of approval. (More on this in a moment.)

I know this is a difficult and sensitive issue to many, especially in light of our shared intention here. And my goal here is not to tell you how to spend your time or what to do in the voting booth. But for the sake of the animals, I ask that you consider the following...


An Open Letter to My Fellow Members
of the Animal Rights Community

My Dear Compadres,

There was once a time when I saw the animal rights vs. animal welfare dichotomy as merely an “it’s all good” distinction between key issues in our movement. But over the past few years, I’ve watched this gap widen as a number of very disturbing things continue to play out on the animal advocacy landscape. So in this letter, I will offer a quick overview of the dilemma, share some critical perspectives on the debate, then show why California's Prop 2 (and other such legislation) may carry an unexpected backfire effect to our movement.

My intention here is not to create any ill-will or bad feelings within a group of people who I consider part of my extended family and who all basically share the same long-term objective. It is to promote serious inner-reflection among all who truly care about animals, as we ask the following question: Will our movement continue to quantifiably serve animals, or will it castrate itself with the illusion that it’s serving them? This is truly what’s on the line here, my friends.

The Quick Nutshell

There are obviously many layers to the rights vs. welfare discussion, but here is a basic overview.

Animal rights subscribes to the ideal that all animals have a right to live freely and peacefully, so we should not support the exploitation or killing of animals for any reason (with the rare exception of euthanizing an animal who is in extreme pain and beyond all medical help).

Animal welfare deems it acceptable to exploit animals for food, clothing, entertainment, testing, etc., but lobbies for the minimal amount of cruelty, suffering or ill-treatment in the process.

Therefore, any animal rights person or organization who chooses to actively support an animal welfare position, generally does so under the premise that we are a long ways off from any significant amount of the population giving up animal products, so if an animal is going to be exploited or killed anyway, we should fight for better conditions for that animal. (In the event of factory farming, for example, we should lobby for more humane living conditions, transportation, execution processes, etc.)

But since animal rights is ultimately about the complete abolishment of any activity or platform that exploits or kills animals, some rights activists choose not to go out of their way to actively support animal welfare issues, when that same amount of time, energy and money can be spent on animal rights issues.

Likewise, some animal welfare folks tend not to promote certain animal rights philosophies because they feel that they are often too “extreme” for most people to embrace and could possibly alienate them from doing anything on behalf of the animals. Accordingly, many view animal welfare causes as a good first step toward animal liberation.

At the same time, many animal rights folks feel that, while animal welfare concepts could potentially create more humane conditions for animals on the short-term, they ultimately delay animal liberation. The main reason for this is because people usually derive a false sense of good will from supporting animal products or processes where the magnitude of the exploitation and suffering has supposedly been reduced.

To put all of this in "human" terms, let’s assume for a moment that child labor was legal internationally. The welfare activist would lobby for the Indian sweat shop to offer better working conditions for the children, and therefore consider a 10-hour day with two 30-minute breaks a victory when compared to, let's say, a 16-hour day with one 15-minute break. The rights activist would say that child labor is wrong across the board, and on every level, so we’re not going to haggle over degrees of wrongness. Instead, we need to abolish this practice outright, be it on a legislative level, or through consumer boycotts, etc.

The Fundamental Flaw

It's important to note here that while both of these perspectives are pro-animal, the welfare philosophy is ultimately in direct conflict with the rights philosophy because every welfare concept or protocol - as applied to animal agriculture - still involves the killing of an animal. Every single one. And therein lies the most basic conflict between the two.

If a human rights activist is anti-death penalty, they're not going to take much solace in the fact that the death row prisoner was given a larger cell prior to his or her execution. And while living conditions and general treatment do factor into the human rights umbrella, these issues would never take precedence or priority over the basic right-to-life theme of the movement...especially if they were to propagate even more killing.

For this reason, it's important that every animal advocate not be shepherded into thinking that we all should be out there blindly promoting every welfare concept or legislation. We all must do our own thinking here, regardless of what our various animal advocacy groups or beloved animal rights figures may be shouting from the rooftops. So please consider all of the following before deciding whether your energy and focus is best spent on welfare causes.

The Welfare Effect

Some of our biggest, most well-funded animal advocacy organizations have now aligned themselves with animal product entities to create a mirage of good will, as they work toward implementing key welfare protocols. This has involved the implied endorsement of certain products or companies where animals are still killed by the truckloads.

An obvious case in point: Wolfgang Puck, a man at the center of a huge organization that kills millions of animals per year, has become a poster child for the animal welfare movement. Now, to be clear, I have no real opinion about, or judgment toward, Wolfgang Puck. He is who he is, he does what he does, and it certainly isn’t my place to be his moral compass. But when some of our most influential entities – like the HSUS and the Genesis Awards – elect to deify this guy just because he handles his exploitation and murder of animal beings in a way they deem “more humane,” it sends a mixed message to the masses; that animals have no inherent right to life and can be imprisoned and killed at our long as we do so "humanely."

Whether you walk up behind someone and quietly blow their brains out, or torture them for two days and then let them bleed to death, you are still going to jail. You might serve less time for just shooting them, but you damn sure will not find yourself paraded around the media as a goodwill ambassador just because you didn’t torture your victim first.

Can you imagine a couple of human rights advocates from the UNHCR having a warm and fuzzy interview on YouTube with some insurgent from Congo, just because he imprisons and executes his refugees in a less cruel way than the others do? This is the kind of lunacy we’re talking about here.

The Illusion of Solidarity

There’s no question that animal welfare issues are more palatable to the rest of the world than those “fanatical” animal rights issues. I mean, even the most callous carnivore or dedicated hunter will generally reject the notion of any animal needlessly suffering. And besides, the welfare approach isn't even asking that anyone alter their eating choices. They're just saying, "Eat this 'humane' brand of eggs instead of that 'cruel' brand."

In light of this revelation, the welfarists conclude, we now have something we all can agree on: Animals should not suffer needlessly! Great! So let’s all have a group hug, then get this legislation passed so that thousands of “cage-free” chickens can be crammed into one small room, rather than a series of tiny cages. Hooray!

I sometimes wonder if, after years of across-the-board dismissal from the general public and corporate America, the animal advocacy community is happy just to be enjoying any sense of forward movement at all from the mainstream, even if it is delusional. “Look, it’s working! We picked up another 68 signatures today!”

Seriously, I don’t mean to make light of everyone’s hard work on these issues, especially when I consider the heartfelt intention behind it all. But that’s exactly what makes this whole thing so hard to witness. I see tons of dedicated volunteers, advocates and activists spending inordinate amounts of time supporting fundraising events, lobbying for policy changes or trying to collect signatures for ridiculous bills that:

1) will not bring about anywhere near the reduction of suffering that everyone thinks (as we'll discuss in a moment);

2) will only be enforced to the extent that animal product manufacturers choose to adhere to them (remember the Humane Slaughter Act?);

3) will ultimately cause the death of just as many animals, if not more, because all of these “animal friendly” new categories like cage-free and free-range have become a permission slip for people to enjoy their murdered and exploited animal products guilt-free;

4) will misappropriate precious time and money that could go toward things that are more congruent with our original goal, and will have a more quantifiable effect in our ultimately achieving it;

5) will create a backslide effect in a number of vegans or vegetarians who will now think it’s okay to eat these “humane” animal products (yes, this really is starting to happen now);

6) will give an implied endorsement from organizations that have traditionally been animal friendly to companies that will never be animal friendly.

I know that the animal rights, grass roots, in-the-trenches approach to educating the public looks far less glamorous on paper than getting some half-assed new legislation passed, or having a high-profile figure like Wolfgang Puck as a media ally. But at least its real. At least you can draw a straight line directly from influencing someone’s eating choices, if only a meal at a time, to the face of an animal who’s been saved as a result of that choice.

With this welfare approach, there is generally no straight line to draw to anything tangible. It’s just a speculative pipe dream about some new law, that…

will hopefully be enforceable in the distant future,
will hopefully reduce the suffering of animals significantly, and
will hopefully be some kind of first step in people understanding a bigger picture,
which will then hopefully lead to them transitioning away from all animal products
(even as St. Wolfgang assures them that his animals are treated well),
because they will hopefully have some kind of epiphany about veganism.

That’s an awful lot of hope…and an awful lot of killing that is still going on while you’re hoping.

The Chump Factor: Why the Joke's On Us

There is no doubt that as certain animal advocacy groups offer their endorsement of certain animal product entities, these entities enjoy a financial benefit. But the bigger question is, what kind of financial benefit do the "sponsoring" animal advocacy groups receive? Welfare issues are infinitely more media and consumer friendly, so we can only imagine how much more money is involved where welfare-related fundraising and donations are concerned. Fair enough. We all know how important funding is for any large-scale endeavor. Still, one has to wonder to what extent this increased revenue factors into these organizations' intense focus on welfare issues.

Motives aside, the result is the same. Once our big guns decide to play in this sandbox, we are heading toward derailment where total liberation for animals is concerned. Why? Because once the legislation's passed, the victory party's over and the confetti's swept off the floor, the blood will still be dripping down the slaughterhouse least as much as it ever was before.

And let’s not kid ourselves - any support, compliance or even financial contribution to the welfare cause did not come about because a corporation suddenly grew a conscience. Nor did it come about because they give a damn about our tiny, fiscally inconsequential movement, which, by the way, does not constitute any quantifiable part of their consumer base. These companies comply for two main reasons:

1. The animal welfare movement is generating untold amounts of positive publicity to their corporation, free of charge;

2. For profitability reasons, they are heading in the direction of “more humane” protocols anyway. Yes, friends, it’s true, and that’s one of the big selling points that welfare proponents make to these companies. “Listen, fellas, if you house your animals in better conditions, you won’t have so many die before you have a chance to slaughter them! So this is actually a more efficient and profitable way to go.”

Ostensibly, the strategy of the welfarist in this case is to appeal to the financially motivated side of the corporation as a way of achieving a result that is beneficial to the animals. But the joke is truly on us if we think that we’re outsmarting these folks into being more animal friendly.

Corporations are not in the business of having a conscience. (Scope out the excellent documentary The Corporation for a more thorough explanation of this reality.) They are in the business of, and legally bound to the ideal of, making a profit for their shareholders. And until they really feel it in their pocketbook – either through the realization that fewer people are buying their products, or that there is a substantial profit to be made in offering vegan options – they will not be dissuaded from killing animals. In fact, if these welfarist methods for improved protocol do create more profit for the corporation, their business of killing animals will undoubtedly expand, and this is one way even more animals will die.

Such is the case for animal product peddlers of all sizes, not just the big corps. At last glance online, there were 109 farming organizations officially in support of the pro-welfare Proposition Two here in California. Again, they're not supporting this for their conscience. Everyone sees this as a win-win...except for the animals, and those animal advocates who are looking beyond the fervor and seeing what's really going on here.

Animal Welfare and the Backfire Effect

Not long ago, someone would read a book or see some video footage about modern animal agriculture and say, “My God! I don’t believe what’s going on in the world of factory farming. I no longer want to eat animals. Instead, I’ll start looking for vegan alternatives.”

But today, when they’re exposed to the same horrific info, many people say “My God! I don’t believe what’s going on in the world of factory farming. I’m no longer going to eat animals…that were treated like that. Instead, I’ll start buying animal products with those 'humane' labels on them.”

This backlash is being propagated by the welfare movement, every time they create a media-visible alliance with, or trumpet an implied endorsement of, any entity or product that involves the killing or exploitation of animals.

Think about it: When PETA lifts a boycott on an entity like KFC in Canada just because they’ve complied to some welfarist stipulation ("Controlled Atmosphere Killing," to be exact), what’s the take-home message? You basically have PETA saying, “Okay everybody, the Colonel has benevolently agreed to kill his chickens by gassing them instead of slitting their throats, so now it’s okay to eat there again.” In-san-i-ty, people!

Likewise, look at the recent Oprah episode that focused on the treatment of farm animals and California's impending Proposition Two. Back in '96, when she did a show with Howard Lyman that focused on the atrocious practices of the beef industry, the take-home message was clear; don't eat meat! I believe Oprah's quote at the time was something to the effect of, "(This issue) has just stopped me cold from eating another burger." This time, however, the show had an exclusively welfare slant. And even after doing a reasonable job depicting typical conditions for layer hens, pigs and veal calves, the take-home message was: buy cage-free or free-range.

Some rights advocates may feel that anyone who would choose "humane" animal products over being vegan, was never going to be (or remain) vegan anyway. I disagree. The main aspect of factory farming that initially catches people's attention - and exposes our ruthless commoditization of animals - is the shocking amount of suffering inherent to the process. If it is suggested that suffering will be eliminated or seriously reduced once this new legislation kicks in, many people will justify their use of these more "conscientious" products, as an alternative to exploring vegan options.

I've seen this response first-hand as I've guided countless people around Animal Acres, a local farm animal sanctuary. "This is terrible, how these poor animals have been treated!" they say. "I guess I'd better start buying free-range or cage-free from now on."

Now, am I suggesting that we continue to let animals suffer under such atrocious conditions so humans will be shocked into going vegan? Of course not. I'm only suggesting that, to the extent that we embrace any welfare cause, let's carefully consider the ultimate take-home message, because it could be misleading to the point of undermining our rights causes.

Example: The recent Prop 2 commercials here on LA television always end with a shot of several old-school farm chickens, hanging out in some grassy field. This is seriously misleading, as it implies that this is what life will be like for chickens if the proposition passes. The truth is, they could eventually have a little more room. That's it. But the consumer will be under the impression that they're getting their eggs from birds who live under conditions so wonderful that even the Humane Society approves of them...and look, here's the seal to prove it!

So again, let's bring in the human rights perspective: If you were on death row right now, and you knew that every subsequent generation of your family was doomed to the same fate, would you want me out here lobbying to get you a slightly bigger cell, or trying to save your life? It’s one or the other. What’s it going to be? And don’t say both, because if I got you a bigger cell, then the “system” would be that much more inclined to kill you since there’s less guilt about how you’ve been treated. A preposterous premise? I agree. But that’s basically what we’re looking at with much of this animal welfare business.

The root problem is, culturally, morally and spiritually, we do not see the inherent interconnectedness that exists between “us and them.” As a result, we view animals as inconsequential commodities who are here to serve us under whatever terms we decide, be it for food, clothing, companionship, entertainment, testing, or whatever. This is the root problem. One of the symptoms of this problem is the unbearable amount of cruelty and suffering involved with us carrying out this human-over-animals paradigm. Animal welfare attempts to lessen one of the symptoms. We can all understand this noble intention. But in the process of addressing a symptom, the problem is magnified on two primary levels:

1. It creates the illusion that little to no cruelty is involved with these humane processes, thereby making it ethically acceptable for people to consume these products;

2. It diverts focus away from the underlying premise of the entire movement; that animals have the same fundamental right to life that humans do.

This backlash has been running down the spine of the movement for several years now. Even the producers of the excellent documentary, Peaceable Kingdom, have gone back to the drawing board for a revised edition, just to bring the fundamental right-to-life issue a little more front-and-center. This is why we rights people have to stay focused on the original premise of the rights movement: “animals have a right to live in peace,” not “animals have a right to be imprisoned and executed humanely.”

In much of my own work, I’ve brought a lot of the factory farming issues into focus as a way of illuminating just how much ill-regard we, as a society, have for animals. But I’ve had to be careful not to let the last note ring out on this point, otherwise someone might rush off to the nearest Whole Foods Market to buy some "free-range" chicken. Instead, it always gets back to the animals inherent right to freedom, well-being, living in peace, and not having their throats slit.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend sneaking into the horizon is present vegans and veggies who regress back to eating “humane” animal products because the perceived amount of suffering has been reduced. This is yet another reason why I believe welfare causes will ultimately do more harm than good for the animals.

Why California's Prop Two is a Waste of Our Valuable Time and Resources

California's Proposition Two is a perfect example of the futility and potential harm of the welfare movement. Yes, I know this might sound harsh to many because, after all, what kind of animal advocate would NOT support the notion of less suffering? But let's take a closer look at exactly what this proposition involves, and what the tangible result of such a bill passing will mean.

Remember, this isn't about discrediting a proposition because of how few animals it will ultimately help or how minimally it will help them. (Hell, I'm sure we would all fight for the reduction of suffering for one lone hen.) This is about prioritizing one's time and energy toward those causes and activities that will have the most upside and the least downside to the well-being of animals.

With this in mind, check out the actual language of the bill (emphasis mine):

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

25990. PROHIBITIONS.- In addition to other applicable provisions of law, a person shall not tether or confine any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(a) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(b) Turning around freely.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

First of all, this bill is designed exclusively for egg-laying hens, pregnant pigs and calves raised for veal. And since California has little to no veal or pork industry to speak of, this bill is mainly addressing the egg industry. So let's understand that Prop 2 is extremely limited in terms of the range of farm animals that it's even meant to help. (This is relevant as we weigh the upside against the downside in a moment.)

Secondly, there are many ways to interpret these directives and we're literally only talking about inches here, so there is no real concession being made for a significant reduction in suffering...even for layer hens.

Now, let's look at the exceptions, that is, the allowances for an entity to essentially ignore these lenient directives:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

25992. EXCEPTIONS.- This chapter shall not apply:

(a) During scientific or agricultural research.

(b) During examination, testing, individual treatment or operation for veterinary

(c) During transportation.

(d) During rodeo exhibitions, stale or county fair exhibitions, 4-H programs, and
similar exhibitions.

(e) During the slaughter of a covered animal in accordance with the provisions of
chapter 6 (commencing with Section 19501) of Division 9 of the Food and
Agricultural Code, relating to humane methods of slaughter, and other
applicable law and regulations.

(f) To a pig during the seven-day period prior to the pig' s expected date of giving birth.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Would it be better that an animal be granted a few more inches of room to turn around for at least 51% of the time of their confinement before slaughter? Sure. But first, consider this little tidbit. And again, this is an actual cut-and-paste from the bill:

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


The provisions of sections 25990, 2599 1, 25992, 25993, and 25994 shall become
operative on January 1, 2015.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

That's over six years from now, folks!

Still, you might be thinking, at least it's something. A few inches can mean a lot to an animal so severely confined...even if it won't go into affect for another six years, and even if it's primarily only affecting layer hens. And besides, if a law like this passes, it will bring more public awareness to the cause in the meantime.

A logical assumption...until we weigh that against what's really going to be happening these next six years.

Herein lies the true problem:

Armed with this impending law in the can, huge entities like HSUS, PETA, and others, will all be jumping on the "friendly label" bandwagon and creating high-profile alliances with animal product manufacturers, all too happy to have the endorsement of, and receive free publicity from, these animal advocacy groups.

The HSUS is already a co-sponsor of the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" label and, mark my words, they'll be out pimping this thing to companies high and low. And they will be successful in getting companies to comply, for all the reasons we've covered. In the meantime, any exposure to the cause that might have resulted from such a campaign will have a built-in remedy for the consumer, and it's not "try these vegan alternatives." Instead, it will be "Look for this special label and continue to enjoy your murdered animals."

So again, let's review. That's six years, waiting for a law to kick in that:

1. will NOT represent any serious reduction of suffering;

2. is NOT designed to spare the life of a single animal;

3. will NOT prevent any California-based food entity from importing animal products from other states where these laws do not exist, anyway;

4. will basically only affect layer hens;

5. will falsely give consumers the impression that little to no suffering is involved with their new "humane" food choices;

6. will continue to distract our movement and waste untold amounts of time, energy and money that could otherwise go toward more productive activities;

7. will ultimately serve as a promotional platform - and increase revenues - for all animal product companies who proudly display the "humane" label, as more animals are executed.

Simply put, this is NOT a great bill, even if you happen to be pro-welfare.

"It's All About the Benjamins"

Just to underscore one aspect from point #6 above...I know that many animal advocates get frustrated at how the rights movement seems to just trudge along at times, without many quantifiable spikes of growth to celebrate. And I can understand how these same folks might sense that real progress is being made on the welfare front. But a big reason why you see so much movement in the welfare realm is because of the tremendous amount of financial resources being poured into it. And let's face it, so much about the success of any social movement is centered around funding.

So the real question is, can you imagine how much more efficacious the rights movement would be if we had access to even a fraction of these resources? It would be incredible. So always remember that it's not a case of the welfare cause being a more effective or viable concept; it's just a much more palatable and well-funded concept.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

If you feel compelled to pursue and promote welfare issues, that's obviously your choice. Me? I will continue to hold the space for total liberation and not waste precious time in support of any activity or philosophy that represents anything less than the complete abolishment of animal exploitation...even if it is under the jive-ass umbrella of “cage-free,” “free-range” or “humane slaughter.” Advocating complete liberation is our only hope. And until we get this, we are all, at best, like a bunch of benevolent slave owners, still perpetuating a culture of subjugation and violence.

Do you really think that if our 19th century abolitionists would've been lobbying only for better working/living conditions for slaves, that Lincoln would've been signing on the dotted line when he did? I don't think so. Humankind's "inherent right to...," as applied to our African brothers and sisters, would've been delayed by untold years, because their basic conditions would've been so much more "humane," and the fundamental injustice of slavery would've been diluted.

Will we see even a predominantly vegan world in our lifetime? Probably not. But that's no reason to settle for a cause that ultimately goes against the grain of the entire animal rights movement.

We're Getting Closer...

The truth is, we're making headway every year. As just one example, you can now walk into most any grocery store in the country and find a variety of vegan alternatives. Such has not always been the case, believe me! I know this first-hand, because I've logged in a ton of on-the-road miles through the years and I've watched this expansion extend even to the smallest towns around the country.

And lately, we've even had some serious mainstream exposure to the cause. In addition to the recently published works of Dr. Colin Campbell, Dr. Joel Fuhrman and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn - all of whom are promoting plant-based eating - we have the media juggernaut that is, Skinny Bitch. This is, of course, Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin's vegan-based book series which has been riding atop the New York Times bestsellers list for untold months now. And not long ago, we even had Oprah and Ellen both covering plant-based eating during the same week on daytime TV! This is big. We're getting there, a little at a time. Let's not muddy the waters and negate these efforts by emphasizing welfare issues. I know we can't always expect complete conversions out of the mainstream, but there are many strategic things we can do to get folks on the step at a time. But we must stay on point, even to do this.

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Friends, this has not been an easy letter to write, largely because it’s such an emotionally charged issue amongst my fellow animal advocates, each of whom is proceeding with the best of intentions for the animals. But I’m not writing any of this just to make my points and attempt to win some rhetorical argument. I’m truly concerned that we are losing our way right now and that so many animals will be paying the ultimate price as a result.

So please, consider all I’ve said here – for the animals.

Bobby Rock


More Food For Thought On the Subject

Here are a just a few links dealing with welfare/rights issues: - Gary Francione is one of the most outspoken and articulate on this issue. His site is a must-see. - A fantastic resource from the Tribe of Heart folks for understanding more about the welfare approach. Tons of info. - An excellent blog from Peaceful Prairie Animal Sanctuary's Joanna Lucas."Libra letter") - An open letter on animal welfare from long-time rights activist Libra Max.



© 2002 - 2008 Bobby Rock