Wildlife & Biodiversity

What do animal rights have to do with human wellbeing? Everything

Animal rights are important because all animals have inherent worth and because human rights and a healthy planet matter

By Poorva Joshipura
Published: Wednesday 06 September 2023
Photo: iStock

Recently, I came across these lines by a writer in an Indian publication being critical of PETA and animal rights: “Ingrid Newkirk, PETA’s founder, once said ‘a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy’ implying ‘equal’ treatment.” 

“PETA” stands for “People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”. There are independent PETA entities worldwide that work together and separately to end animal abuse, including in India, where Newkirk grew up.

The author wrote as if he expected readers to share his incredulity — which is an odd expectation when opinion polls from around the world consistently show the public generally believes animals matter.

Consider the full quote: “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger, and thirst, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Which is to say that other animals have physical needs and the capacity to suffer, just as humans do. Not such an outrageous statement, after all and really just a biological fact. 

Today, ethologists confirm — not that we need them to, as we can usually see for ourselves — that other animals, from whales to bees, are sentient, are intelligent and express emotions. In fact, research revealed that bees appear to dream, may experience something like post-traumatic stress disorder and can countlearn abstract concepts and play.

Given the intelligence of bees, it comes as no surprise that chickens are clever and even cunning, that pigs can be taught to play video games, or that fish form friendships. Animal behaviourists also tell us that cows grievedogs risk their own lives to save that of a loved one, and octopuses experience emotional pain.

With the abundance of information now available about animal sentience and intelligence, increasingly more humans agree that we must consider our moral responsibility to other animals and that we can’t ethically justify disregarding their feelings or denying them protection from harm simply because of who they are. 

But there’s another reason to support animal rights: The philosophy that all other sentient beings deserve the right to live free from human exploitation and abuse, which encompasses the recognition that their well-being is intertwined with our own.

COVID-19, largely believed to have first infected humans at a live-animal market, revealed this interrelationship with jarring clarity. Virologists generally believe that this virus, like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), spread to humans due to the practice of confining wild animals in crowded conditions and slaughtering them. 

Similarly, the spread of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and Ebola among human populations is associated with hunting our fellow primates. Bird flu and swine flu spread and mutate amidst the unnatural and unsanitary conditions inherent in the factory farming of chickens and pigs.

Lately, H5N1 bird flu has also been decimating populations of mammals caged on fur farms.

In July 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a startling warning: “Avian influenza viruses normally spread among birds, but the increasing number of H5N1 avian influenza detections among mammals — which are biologically closer to humans than birds are—raises concern that the virus might adapt to infect humans more easily.” 

H5N1 bird flu has a 60 per cent mortality rate in humans, and so far, human cases have been linked to the proximity of infected birds, mainly chickens. If this virus mutates so as to become more easily transmissible to and between humans due to intensive animal confinement on fur farms, the consequences could be catastrophic. 

The 2009 H1N1 swine flu epidemic killed up to 575,400 people in the first year alone.

Recent decades have seen a rise in factory farming — the intensive rearing of up to thousands of animals in crowded sheds and cages — and an increase in human encroachment into areas inhabited by wildlife, including when trees are razed to grow crops to feed factory-farmed animals or as grazing land for animals raised for meat and leather. 

And so scientists aren’t surprised by a rise in new zoonotic diseases, which are transmissible from animals to humans, at a rate of three to four per year.

According to a 2020 report by the nonprofit World Wildlife Fund, “The frequency of zoonotic disease outbreaks caused by a spillover of pathogens from animal hosts to people may have more than tripled in the last decade.”

Today, over 70 per cent of animals used for meat and leather worldwide are reared on factory farms and fur-bearing animals are either factory farmed or wild-caught for fur.

To keep animals alive in the crowded, filthy conditions of such facilities, they are commonly pumped full of antibiotics, to the point that now more such drugs are used in farmed animals than in humans. 

The WHO warned, “Over-use and misuse of antibiotics in animals and humans is contributing to the rising threat of antibiotic resistance.” In other words, the drugs are failing to work. 

Antimicrobial resistance has already killed at least 1.27 million people worldwide and was associated with almost 5 million deaths in 2019, according to a report in The Lancet. Antimicrobials include antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals, and antiparasitics. Antimicrobial resistance is a global public health crisis.

Animals’ well-being is linked to our own in other ways, too. For instance, according to University of Oxford researchers, a global shift to vegan eating “could save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings. It could also avoid climate-related damages of $1.5 trillion”. 

Leather production is linked to various types of cancer, skin diseases, and respiratory illnesses in tannery workers and 60 per cent of the world’s leather is now produced in developing countries, which has been linked to lax environmental regulations. And the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation considers crimes against animals a warning sign for violence towards humans.

Animal rights are important because all animals have inherent worth — and because human rights and a healthy planet matter. As Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, said in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, “The message we are getting is that if we don’t take care of nature, it will take care of us.”

Poorva Joshipura is a director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) India 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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