Beyond Companions: Reassessing the Narrative of Animal Protection

The animal protection movement is, you guessed it, focused on protecting animals. But protecting which animals from what?

Historically, the movement has overwhelmingly centered on the welfare of dogs and cats. Founded in 1824, the RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was the first animal protection organization in the West, and remains the largest in the world today. It was founded to protect the welfare of companion animals, ‘pets’, and has maintained this central focus ever since. This overwhelming focus on companion animals extends beyond the RSPCA to encompass the larger animal protection movement today. To put this bias into perspective, the VAST majority of US donations to animal protection groups focus on the welfare of dogs and cats, whereas less than 1% of donations go towards organizations focused on farmed animal welfare.

This bias is easily explained. In the West no animals have a similarly complex/connected relationship with humans than do dogs and cats. Given that we have a tendency to care about those people and issues closest to us, our close personal relationships with dogs and cats has resulted in our prioritizing their welfare in particular.

However, the animal protection movement has evolved in recent decades, with more and more calling to shift attention and resources away from companion animals and towards farmed animals. In particular, the animal rights movement has increasingly come to center on veganism, on asking individuals to stop consuming animal products. Given that 99.6% of domesticated land animals killed in the US every year are slaughtered for food – a ratio mirrored globally–this shift towards the protection of farmed animals makes sense.

But what if replacing the focus on companion animals with farmed animals only is wrong? Or, more specifically, what if this commitment fails to encompass the full implications of what animal protection can and should entail?

The modern animal rights movement has largely failed to consider the welfare of “wild” animals.
The modern animal rights movement has largely failed to consider the welfare of “wild” animals.

Expanding the Scope: Toward a Comprehensive Approach to Animal Rights Advocacy

Just as the historic animal protection movement failed to include farmed animals in their advocacy work, the modern animal rights movement has largely failed to consider the welfare of “wild” animals (hereafter “free” animals).

However, scholars and activists alike are increasingly beginning to turn their attention to the (metaphorical and literal) elephant in the room, the plight of free animals. Given that farmed animals are measured in billions, whereas free vertebrate animals are measured in trillions if not quadrillions (a one followed by 15 zeros), the importance of their inclusion is undeniable. Simply put, accepting that we have duties to companion and farmed animals should lead us to accept similar duties to free animals.

This parallel is most apparent with relation to our “negative” duties, that is, our obligations to refrain from harmful actions. Just as we have no right to cause domesticated animals to suffer, so too do we lack the right to cause free animals to suffer.

While the animal protection movement has historically given little to no attention to free animals, environmentalists have at best focused on species conservation. To be clear, given that species are already going extinct at 1,000x the historic rate (a rate that could very well reach 10,000x normal in the immediate future), this focus is indeed important. And yet, it remains deeply insufficient. Rather, the species level focus discounts the individual lives lost — the suffering we inflict upon unique individuals — irrespective of the status of their species cohort.

Just as human rights groups correctly focus on individual rights violations — not simply the preservation of the human species — so too should the animal rights movement integrate such a commitment into our work.

The focus on the individual suffering of wild animals remains deeply insufficient.
The focus on the individual suffering of wild animals remains deeply insufficient.

Mitigating Harm: Urgent Actions for the Welfare of Free Animals

The need to expand our attention to consider the welfare of free animals is highlighted by the scale of harm humans are currently inflicting upon them. We hunt and kill as many as 2,740,000,000,000 free fishes a year, in many cases the vast majority of whom are killed as “bycatch” and tossed back dead into the sea. Collisions with buildings and vehicles kill billions of animals every year. Habitat destruction is the leading cause of species extinction (rainforest deforestation alone results in the extinction of 137 species every day), a force whose impact on individual lives is levels of magnitude greater. And, most ominously, human induced climate change is already compromising the welfare and taking the lives of countless animals every year (the Australian bushfires earlier this year killed well over 1,000,000,000 free animals).

Given the scale of these harms, societies should work to address and mitigate them with urgency. Fortunately, a number of feasible and actionable policies already exist for beginning to do so:

  1. Ending animal agriculture and updating methods of plant agriculture.
  2. Ending hunting, fishing included.
  3. Updating transportation infrastructure, e.g., constructing highway under/overpasses.
  4. Updating building code, e.g., mandating bird safe windows.
  5. Integrating animal welfare considerations into city planning, e.g., creating migration corridors.
  6. Protecting and expanding habitat, and creating sanctuaries/reserves.
  7. Ending animal captivity.
  8. Implementing educational reform, e.g., requiring courses in humane education.
  9. Implementing political reform, e.g., creating ombudspersons to represent animal interests, granting free animals property rights, etc.
  10. Vaccinating free animals, e.g., against pathogens like rabies, anthrax, rinderpest, brucellosis, etc.

To be clear, this list is in no way comprehensive; rather, it is meant to give an idea of the policies the animal protection movement should be actively supporting moving forward. Moreover, it is important to note that the benefits of each of these policies are not limited to nonhuman animals, but cascade to benefit humans as well.

Addressing Animal Suffering: A Moral Duty Demands Action

All of these policies, of course, do not touch on what are termed “positive” duties, duties that entail our helping others regardless of our culpability in the cause of their suffering. Irrespective of human involvement, free animals suffer from many ‘natural’ causes: hunger, thirst, illness, predation, and injury to name a few. And an increasing number, myself included, believe that to the extent we are able to help animals live better lives in these situations, we should.

However, one need not accept this more demanding level of positive duties to accept our moral responsibility to prevent human caused animal suffering. At least with regards to our negative duties–our responsibility to not harm others – inaction should not be an acceptable option. Our current actions are already hurting free animals at a staggering quantity and quality. We have an obligation, at the bare minimum, to address these harms. All sentient animals, domesticated and free, deserve as much.

Given the scale of the harms humans are currently inflicting upon wild animals, societies should work to address and mitigate them with urgency.

To be clear, this isn’t a call to shift away from farmed animal advocacy. Little progress has yet to be made in this space, and the overwhelming amount of work remains yet to be done, desperately so. However, it is important for those of us who advocate for farmed animals to acknowledge that our work does not culminate there. Our moral obligations to animal protection only begins, rather than ends, with our personal dietary choices and advocacy. The suffering of free animals matters just as much as the suffering of domesticated animals. As such, it is imperative that the animal protection movement begin to more seriously and explicitly include free animals in our ethical consideration moving forward.