Primer on Animal Rights

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What is Animal Rights?

Animal rights is the philosophy of allowing non-human animals to have the most basic rights that all sentient beings desire: the freedom to live a natural life free from human exploitation, unnecessary pain and suffering, and premature death. This is what the animal rights movement is about; it is not about working for equality between human and non-human animals.

How is Animal Rights Different from Animal Welfare?

Proponents of animal welfare seek to alleviate the suffering of animals while they are being exploited -- without attempting to question the fundamental basis of whether it is acceptable to exploit animals in the first place. Animal rights beliefs reject the idea that animals need to have a value to the human species in order to be deserving of rights. A person can work for both animal welfare and animal rights.

How is Animal Rights Related to Human Rights?

Since the beginning of recorded history, humans have tried to maintain their dominance over others. As humanity began to grow intellectually and socially, it became apparent that many feeling beings were being discriminated against -- that is, having rights taken away from them -- because of the class to which they belonged. Though today there is still prejudice, it is less widespread among many groups of people; for example, it has become a positive value in our culture to be against racism and sexism.

An amazing aspect of prejudice is that most of us cannot relate to it until it affects us on a personal level -- which in many cases is too late to stop the perpetrators from continuing. There is a saying which reflects this sentiment:

     When they came for the socialists, I didn't do
     anything, for I wasn't a socialist.

     When they came for the Gypsies, I didn't do
     anything for I wasn't a Gypsy. 

     When they came for the Jews, I didn't do
     anything for I wasn't a Jew.

     When they came for me, there wasn't anyone
     left to do anything for me.

In order to help ourselves, we must learn to protect both other humans and non-human animals. How does humanity intend to solve differences among its own species when it cannot learn to make peace with the other animals on earth? Humans need to start thinking and living in terms of co-existence, as opposed to dominance. You certainly do not have to love your neighbors, but you should be able to get along with them. Peace begins with the individuals who make a conscious effort to go through life making the least negative impact possible.

Bringing About Change

Though it seems impossible for humans always to act perfectly, animal rights activists strive not to hurt other beings. Therefore, logically, animal rights activists should use only nonviolent means to bring about changes. As in any movement, there are many different approaches, which can vary from letter writing to civil disobedience in the style of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi (a vegetarian and human rights organizer).

Animal Rights Concerns

People involved in animal rights have many different opinions. Below are a few of the issues which concern them. For more specific information, read one of the books or contact one of the organizations listed under "For More Information" section.

  • Fur
  • Wool
  • Wildlife
  • Aquariums and zoos
  • Pets or companion animals
  • Cosmetic testing on animals
  • Use of animals in entertainment
  • Medical experiments on animals

If we add up all the deaths of animals in all the areas mentioned above, we would get a very small percentage of total animal deaths in the United States. The majority of animals killed unnecessarily are often forgotten -- these are the animals raised for food.


In order to save the most animals, increasing numbers of animal rights activists are becoming vegetarian. The bonus in this dietary change is that vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, osteoporosis, and certain forms of cancer than flesh eaters. In addition, vegetarians are also helping the environment and the world hunger problem, since less water, land, and energy are needed to feed a person on a vegetarian diet than on an animal-based diet.

Vegetarian Eating in a Nutshell

Vegetarians do not eat meat, poultry, and fish. Vegans are vegetarians who abstain from eating or using all animal products, including milk, cheese, other dairy items, eggs, wool, silk, or leather.

Many people become vegetarian instantly. They totally give up flesh foods overnight. Others make the change gradually. Do what works best for you.

The key to a healthy vegetarian diet, as with any other diet, is to eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, plenty of leafy greens, whole grain products, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Limit your intake of sweets and fatty foods.

For More Information


ANIMAL LIBERATION, Peter Singer, Avon Books, 1975. (updated in 1990)

ANIMAL FACTORIES, Jim Mason and Peter Singer, Crown Publishers, 1980. (updated in 1990)

THE CASE FOR ANIMAL RIGHTS, Tom Regan, University of California Press, 1983.

THE GREAT AMERICAN HUNTING MYTH, Ron Baker, Vantage Press, 1985.

OLD MACDONALD'S FACTORY FARM, C. David Coats, The Continuum Publishing Company, 1989.

PULLING THE WOOL, Christine Townsend, Hale and Tremonger, 1985.

THE SILENT SPRING, Rachael Carson, Oxford University Press, 1962.

A VEGETARIAN SOURCEBOOK, Keith Akers, Putnam, 1983.


AMERICAN ANTI-VIVISECTION SOCIETY, Suite 204, Noble Plaza, 801 Old York Road, Jenkintown, PA 19046.

BEAUTY WITHOUT CRUELTY, P O Box 325, Twin Lakes, WI 53181 USA


PEOPLE FOR THE ETHICAL TREATMENT OF ANIMALS, 501 Front Street, Norfolk VA 23510.   (757) 622-PETA.

Vegetarian Resource Group Materials

Books, pamphlets, bumper stickers, t-shirts, post cards, article reprints. For a publications list, write to The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203 or send a request via electronic mail to

The 36-page Vegetarian Journal contains educational articles, delicious recipes, informative book reviews, notices about vegetarian events, product evaluations, and hints on where to find vegetarian products and services. Vegetarian Journal is published by The Vegetarian Resource Group, a non-profit educational organization. Donations above the cost of membership are tax deductible.

To subscribe, send $25 to The Vegetarian Resource Group, P.O. Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203.

[The information in this brochure is based partially on an article written by Phil Becker in an issue of Vegetarian Journal.]