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Animal rights primer

Book>> Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs To Know • by Paul Waldau • OUP, New York • US $10.7

By Manju Chellani
Published: Wednesday 15 February 2012

Animal Rights - What Everyone Needs To Know Animal rights is a much obfuscated term. Does it mean animals do have rights and are these like human rights? Should all animals have the same rights? These questions fox not just the uninitiated, but also the battle-scarred activists. There is help at hand. Paul Waldau’s Animal Rights: What Everyone Needs to Know gives us what it promises: a panoramic view of the major commitments underlying any academic or activist discourse on the rights of animals (or non-human animals as Waldau puts it).

Based in the US and working in the areas of animal studies, ethics, religion, law and cultural studies, Waldau is a doyen of the contemporary animal rights movement. This book is an attempt to familiarise readers with “a range of hot-button topics”, including scientific research on animals, factory-farming, animals used in human entertainment, hunting, history of animal protection in religious and cultural traditions, companion animals and the special characteristics of wild animals.

The legal term, “rights”, is often used for human compassion and moral duty for welfare of animals as sentient beings. Waldau explains animal “rights” and “welfare” represent different ideologies of the animal rights movement. He also unravels many more knotty issues such as the differences between moral and legal rights and the imperative of translating the former into latter; the need to use the basic commitments of a legal system such as justice and fairness to creatively carve out protection for animals. But he does not expound on the difficulties faced by concerned individuals or organisations in bringing a suit on behalf of non-human species under many judicial systems, including that in the US. Had the author mentioned the international covenant, the Animal Bill of Rights and Universal Declaration of the Rights of Animals, it would have buttressed his clarification that rights which animals need are very different from the gamut of economic, political social and cultural rights of humans.

imageWaldau also gently chides that humans know very little about the realities and umwelt (environment or surrounding world) of domesticated animals. As for the wild animals, our nature-deficit disorder makes us vulnerable to valuing only the more charismatic such as tigers and dolphins, and not recognise them as only links in the nature’s chain. Similarly, we find it problematic to visualise the populations of the “hidden” species who actually exist in the wild, let alone those in the human gut as microorganisms.

Science continues to make discoveries about various animals’ intelligence, emotionality, social behaviour and ability to experience pain, making “them” more like “us”. Yet, when even a modicum of the rights rhetoric threatens to turn real, controversy erupts. Political and social biases take their toll on passage and enforcement of law.

Waldau points out that in the face of inadequate protection to underprivileged human groups, animal rights become unpopular and low-priority. Moreover, history and culture of a country play their roles as do the attitudes entrenched right from childhood—from the family and the school. But winds of changes are blowing. For example, given a chance to flex their “ethical muscles”’ students may not want to dissect an animal in school or college. Nor may the authorities. We have a very recent Indian example in University Grants Commission’s Guidelines for discontinuation of dissection and animal experimentation in zoology/ life sciences in a phased manner.

Waldau has also given vignettes of some individuals and organisations—both the internationally acclaimed and the behind-the-scenes pioneers. But not all of these cameos are complete. For example, the significance of Henry Spira’s 1970s and 1980s campaign-strategies against animal-testing for cosmetic-products in providing motivation for manifold social-justice protests is not highlighted.

In his piece on the future of animal rights, Waldau wraps up his themes, gives detailed prognostications, with too idealistic an emphasis on corporate social responsibility and too sketchy a role for NGOs which are often the major protagonists in many scenarios, the Draft Animal Welfare Act, 2011 of India, for instance.

Manju Chellani researches on environmental law, rights of animals, and legal issues related to cultural heritage

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