The non-human rights movement is exciting, but we must tread carefully

As the non-human rights movement continues to gain momentum, what could it actually mean for the thousands of wild animals suffering in captivity? Used effectively, could this movement, which seeks to establish certain rights for some non-human animals, promote efforts to improve wild animal welfare within captivity? Or, conversely, through its revolutionary and potentially contentious political nature, could it threaten what is already a complex and multi-faceted issue?

Ultimately, as a movement that (amongst other things) effectively promotes the welfare of animals, whether captive or not, and which gives animals another voice, serving to raise awareness of animal welfare concepts generally, as well as the specific issue of non-human rights, it is something that should be supported and encouraged. The progress made by the movement is exciting and welcome. However, as it progresses, we must be alive to the delicate issues at stake and the movement’s interaction with the wider animal welfare cause. We must be careful to handle the issues correctly and sensitively, as only then can great things be achieved.

Let’s start with the basics. Thousands of wild animals suffer immeasurably poor welfare in captivity. Educated guesses suggest there could be up to 10,000 regulated and unregulated captive facilities holding thousands of wild animals. While many captive wild animals are given protection through legislation or regulatory standards recommended by the global zoo community, this is significantly outweighed by the number of animals suffering in captivity either without the protection of any legislation or regulation, or where minimum standards amounting to no welfare protection, are in place. Bearing this in mind, it’s initially difficult to imagine how one would get far arguing the rights of a few specific species, particularly when in some areas, there isn’t even a local translation for the term “animal welfare”.

In addition, there is a concern that in pushing for animals in captivity to receive rights, one could dilute the credibility of other animal welfare campaigns through potentially blurring the issues and setting new, more controversial, objectives. While people may be prepared to support basic animal welfare campaigns, when we start pushing for rights for animals, with such rights barely existing for millions of people around the world, there must be a risk of creating animal welfare campaigns with fundamentally different perspectives and thus polarising supporters, and alienating the general public.

The non-human rights movement supports rights for some non-human animals but not all. The Nonhuman Rights Project states, “Our plaintiffs will be animals for whom there is clear scientific evidence of such complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy. Currently that evidence exists for elephants, dolphins and whales, and all four species of great apes. So, for the foreseeable future, our plaintiffs are likely to come from these three groups.”

I’d agree that these animals require complex stimulation with needs that cannot be completely met in captivity. I’d go as far as to say that evidence continually shows that these species shouldn’t be kept in captivity, but I am equally aware that millions of dollars a year goes into researching their complex needs, and the better zoos certainly continue to push boundaries to meet these needs. Consequently, the concern for these species may be better considered as an ethical rather than simply welfare-centred issue (this is not however a justification for captivity and improvements are only seen within the better zoos). Some species tend to just “survive” in captivity whatever you throw at them, but suffer immensely due to the limitations of captivity compared to their complex wild living requirements. But if one of these particular species isn’t considered to have complex cognitive abilities, it may miss out on this new opportunity, despite overall, being subject to poorer welfare than those species being considered. And true to the saying “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” most welfare scientists would agree that as welfare and sentience research continues, an increasing number species will demonstrate complex cognitive abilities.

All that said, I genuinely believe applying personhood protection to non-human animals is a wonderful concept, which I support wholeheartedly if it continues to drive forward better welfare practices and respect for animals in general. The downfall will be if it only mediates a short-term change to a few individual animals and causes deflection from the other work being done on a wider scale. Time will tell, and like most new approaches, innovation is often met with ridicule before it wins over the naysayers. I truly hope it becomes part of the larger animal welfare movement, and I’ll support any effort to give animals another voice.

Previously published on Huffington post