Animal Rights and Animal Law

December 11, 2020Zihao Yu

Animal Rights Theory


According to USLegal, animal rights is referred to as “an idea that intends to provide humane treatment for animals. It means the right not to be exploited for human purposes and that the interests of non-human animals should be given the same consideration as similar interests of human beings. It is also sometimes termed “animal liberation.” People who work for animal rights often cover areas of the fur and wool industry, aquariums and zoos, testing on animals, and pets. Animal rights activists require animals to be regarded as individuals, rather than property.


Animal rights can be viewed as either morally or legally. According to the principle of the animal rights theories, the consequence would be as follows (BBC):

However, animals cannot have the same rights as human beings. The concept of five freedoms or five rights is widely accepted which is derived from the five domains of animal welfare. The idea of five freedoms or five rights include:


There have been a lot of debates for and against animal rights. The discussion on animal rights always starts with the comparison of human rights stating that “human beings and adult mammals have rights because they are both 'subjects-of-a-life',” (BBC)  so that it would be rational if human beings have rights, and there is no morally relevant difference between human beings and non-human animals, therefore nonhuman animals can have rights. 

Arguments for animal rights are that animals 1) have similar levels of biological complexity; 2) are conscious and aware that they exist; 3) know what is happening to them; 4) prefer some things and dislike others; 5) make conscious choices; 6) live in such a way as to give themselves the best quality of life; 7) plan their lives to some extent, and 8) quality and length of their life matters to them.

Arguments against animal rights are that animals 1) don't think; 2) are not really conscious; 3) were put on earth to serve human beings; 4) don't have souls; 5)don't behave morally; 6) are not members of the 'moral community'; 7) lack the capacity for free moral judgment (from BBC).

Comparison of the Related Concept

Animal Rights v. Animal Welfare

Animal rights mean that animals are not ours to use for food, clothing, entertainment, or experimentation. Animal welfare allows these uses as long as “humane” guidelines are followed. There was a debate between Peter Singer and Richard Posner on the topic of animal welfare and animal rights.

Animal rights v. Utilitarianism

According to utilitarianism, the well-being of every individual counts, and the use of nonhuman animals can be acceptable only if the happiness their exploitation causes is greater than the harm it causes. These are not accepted by animal rights.

Animal Rights v. Speciesism

Speciesism is the idea that being human is a good enough reason for human animals to have greater moral rights than non-human animals. However, this theory is always criticized as discriminate and biased for different species.

"Paw over Hand" by TLV and more is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Legal Protection of Animals

The legislation provides protection for animals from different perspectives. Normally, the legal protection for animals is based on the theory of property, animal rights, or other theories.

Theory of Property

According to the theory of property, an animal is regarded as a sort of personal property, which receives the protection for the property. In most jurisdictions, animals as legal things have little or no legal rights of their own, and the “rights” for animals actually belong to the animal owners or handlers. Based on the theory of property, protecting animals as property can solve the problems in a variety of cases, such as protecting the animals from the harm, damage or killing of the animals from a person other than the owner or handler.

Protecting animals as property has its own limitations and the law has a reaction to these issues. One example is that the fair market value for the property is not suitable for the estimation of the value of the companion animals. Normally the newest property will have the highest market value, and after being used for a long time, the value will decrease, even to no market value. On the contrary, a companion animal’s value to the owner would increase when more time is spent, although its market value may decrease. To solve this problem, some courts calculate the economic value and non-economic value of the companion animals, while other courts still use the theory of the property and calculate the value of the companion animals only of the fair market value.

(See more related to this issue in the U.S. here)

Another issue is the custody issue of companion animals Upon Guardian Divorce. Some courts take the best interests of animals into consideration the same way as in the custody of children after a divorce, and some courts adopt new methods for the custody such as visitation and shared custody arrangement, monetary support paid to the custodial guardian, or “petimony.” All of these shows that the traditional way of property disposition in divorce does not meet all demands for the disposition of companion animals.

(See more related to this issue in the U.S. here)

Finally, the property legal framework cannot deal with the problem when the animal owners or handlers harm, abuse or neglect the animals. According to the property theory, there are four rights for the possessor: the right to use the good, the right to earn income from the good, the right to transfer the good to others, and the right to ownership cessation. So that the welfare of the animals and anti-cruelty shall be protected other than the framework of personal property.

Theory of Animal Rights

Animal rights theory is an idea that the interests of animals shall be given the same consideration as the interests of human beings. In the legal system, animals shall be regarded as individuals, not just property, and human beings shall not have a privilege over animals. This theory does not allow human beings to use animals for experiments or animal testing, food, clothes or medicine, hard labor, breeding not for the benefit of the animal, hunting, and zoo, aquarium, and other types of entertainment.

The animal rights theory is hard to apply to the current legal system because the distinction between “a person” and “a thing” is one of the most important classifications for the law. Therefore, legal personhood and legal standing are vital for animal rights cases.

Legal Personhood

Animals recognized as legal personhood will receive a higher level of protection. The distinction between human and thing as “personhood” and “thinghood” is a basic framework for the current legal system. As previously discussed, animals protected as personal property cannot provide enough protection for the interests of animals. There is a movement of “animal legal personhood” or “animal personhood” to provide more protection. 

Legal personhood does not require the subject to be human-beings, nonhuman-beings such as ship or company can also have legal personhood in the courts. On the other side, in history, not all human beings are allowed to have personhood due to different bases of discrimination. There are also discussions on whether to give personhood to artificial intelligence, robot, or a human embryo. Great apes and chimpanzees cases have been sued for legal personhood in courts by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP).

Legal Standing

The legal standing, the ability to sue, is another important issue for animal law cases. A potential litigant must have the standing to have the case to be heard in the court. According to U.S. laws, a plaintiff shall meet the following requirements to be able to have standing:

The court uses the standing to make it difficult for animal advocates or activists hard to sue, as usually animal advocates or activists do not have a personal legal connection with animals so that they cannot easily pass the “injury in fact” test. The aesthetic injury can be an option for animal advocates or activists who are seeking “injury in fact.”

Other Perspectives

Other than the theories of property, and the theory of animal rights, there are many different aspects such as utilitarianism, welfarism, speciesism, contractarianism, or egalitarianism. (Read more here). The different theory has a different view on what the human-animal relation is, what kind of animals shall be protected on which level. They recognize animals are not property but do not protect them high as the level of animal rights. There was a debate between Peter Singer and Richard Posner about animal welfare and animal rights.

Now existing animal laws, including general animal protection law or the animal welfare law, hunting law, agriculture, transportation and slaughter law, wildlife protection or conservation laws, and law on animals for exhibition, research and other uses, are more based on the utilitarian or welfarism perspective, which present that animals are not merely a property and need more protection, but the protection level is lower than the rights for human beings.

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