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Quick Overview of Animal Rights

Joseph Lubinski

Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Printable Version

Quick Overview of Animal Rights


Animal rights?  To a growing number of activists, the idea that animals have some basic rights of their own is not so far-fetched.  Indeed, the idea’s roots – that animals should not unnecessarily be made to suffer – has a long tradition in human history.  But the idea that animals have actual rights, rights that might conflict with the interests of people, is something fairly new and controversial.

 Opponents of animal rights do not advocate animal abuse, they do not believe that animals should be tortured.  Rather, they fear what it might mean to humans if other species have positive legal rights and legal benefits.  For instance, some worry that medical advancements might come to a screeching halt without animal experimentation, that hunting would be banned and vegetarianism mandated in a world with animal rights.  Others fear that recognition of nonhuman rights would undermine the worth society places on people’s lives.  We, as a species, are unique among the world’s creatures and only we can truly have, much less deserve, rights.  Morally, intellectually, and socially we are different from dogs, cats, and goldfish.  Our interests are more important because, well, we are more important.  Still others are most concerned with how far such rights might go.  Would setting a mousetrap become illegal?  Would stepping on a spider mean jail time?  Would your favorite pair of leather boots be your last pair of leather anything?

Animal advocates, however, view new legal protections for animals as the natural outgrowth of the rights reforms that changed society over the last century.  They seek certain “basic necessities” for animals, principally a change in their legal status and ability to defend themselves in court.  Almost universally, animals are considered property under the law, simple things to own.  While some animal advocates would equate this with slavery, a less controversial picture is that of animals as a good that can and should be bought and sold.  No real reforms can be had, say rights advocates, until animals are no longer walking toasters and are instead given some aspect of personhood.  Secondly, these activists decry the standing requirements that limit the enforceability of protectionist laws, be they current or future.  Animals, in short, cannot sue to protect themselves and absent special circumstances, people cannot sue on their behalf.

Even these supposedly basic changes to American law would likely fundamentally change the social landscape.  Imagine the changes attendant with further reforms.  The links in this section introduce these and other topics in the animal rights debate more fully.

See also:

Legal Overview of Animal Rights

Detailed Discussion of Animal Rights


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