We live in a world marked by its gradual shift toward equality. From absolute monarchs deriving their power through the divine right theory of kingship to the Declaration of Independence deriving its power through the consent of the governed, the history of our world is the story of this transition. With this transition, we have made it universally accepted that the torture or slaughter of humans is morally repugnant. We empathize with the cruelties of the Holocaust, the devastation of the Darfur Genocide, and the atrocities of the Bosnian War. We immediately denounce these incidents as horrifying and immoral, proclaiming that all people are equal regardless of their race or cultural identity. We recognize them as massive violations of human rights.
Similarly, when we hear reports about animals being slaughtered in factory farms or about the horrors of animal testing, we all instinctively cringe in pity for these tortured animals. In factory farms, hens are frequently starved for two weeks to coerce molting, forced to regularly resort to cannibalism, and often have their beaks removed without morphine or anesthesia. Meanwhile, in large manufacturing plants and reputable universities, mice are forced to grow tumors the size of their own bodies, rats endure purposely induced seizures and crushed spinal cords, and pigs and sheep suffer as their skin is burned off. Yet even though we feel pity for these animals and their drastic situations, far fewer people instantly reach the same conclusion that is reached when we witness violence toward humans: that animals deserve certain inalienable rights.
Why should we ascribe these rights to humans but not animals? Despite the huge progress made in promoting universal human rights, the advancement of animal rights has remained disturbingly stagnant throughout history. Unable to communicate through words and ill-equipped to defend themselves against humans, animals have been consistently exploited and used for human ends, our ethical duties to them tossed into the shadowy backgrounds. By asserting that humans are more intelligent than animals, opponents of animal rights justify this cruelty toward animals, claiming that since animals are not as intelligent or rational as humans, they do not deserve certain protections and safeguards.
Using this logic, however, many humans would not even qualify to have rights since they do not pass this same test of rationality. Although infants are clearly not rational and are completely dependent on others for survival, it would be morally repulsive to suggest that infants don't have rights and can be subjugated at will. In the case of mentally challenged patients, as well, it is apparent that these marginal cases of rational capacity make the distinction between those who deserve rights and those who don't murky and undefined. If rationality is our means of measurement, it becomes difficult to justify why infants and the mentally challenged deserve certain rights, but animals do not.
This distinction between animals and humans becomes even less pronounced when the qualities that make us human are scrutinized further. Recent studies indicate that traits thought to be uniquely human have been identified in animal species as well, thus fundamentally challenging our reasoning for treating them differently. Orangutan mothers develop close, life-long relationships with their offspring, chickens recognize and abide by various social hierarchies, and meerkats in the Kalahari Desert even sacrifice themselves to stay behind and care for ill family members. All of these acts, which are so reminiscent of the way humans operate, makes it hard for us not to empathize with their compassion and see a bit of ourselves in these creatures.
Instead of capitalizing on the differences between animals and ourselves, we should utilize opportunities like these to celebrate our similarities. If we identify ourselves only through the differences among us, we lead ourselves down a path that advocates different treatment based on arbitrary differences, justifications that were frequently used to promote racial segregation and human-rights violations. Clearly, it is important, and even necessary, to focus on what makes us the same rather than what makes us distinct, and by doing so, we can take the first step in recognizing that animals ought to be afforded increased rights.
In order to properly respect animals, we need to embrace the set of rights that animals are due. Factory farming, which causes unnecessary pain to farm animals, should be abolished immediately. In its place, a system of open grazing should be implemented, where animals are fed their natural diet without hormones and are given open space to roam, allowing them to exhibit their natural behavior and live longer, healthier lives. This open-grazing method has been proven to be successful: In the New York Times bestseller, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, author Michael Pollan even cites American farmer Joel Salatin's sustainable farm as an example of how farmers can treat animals properly while simultaneously generating substantial revenue.
Similarly, animal testing should be avoided not only because of the outright violation of animal rights, but also because the majority of experiments result in failures that may actually harm human health if the results attained from animals and humans do not correspond. After analyzing more than 500 scientific publications from over a 10-year period, Andrew Knight, a fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics and the director for Animal Consultants International, concluded that results from animal testing were frequently "equivocal or inconsistent with human outcomes," and that only two out of 20 reviews of animal models furthered valuable conclusions, with even one of those conclusions still remaining questionable. On the other hand, non- animal experimentation research such as in-vitro techniques, high-tech scans and human simulators could prove to be quicker, less costly and more accurate than animal testing.
Though there are a multitude of issues that need to be solved on the human front, the unique atrocities animals have had to endure for centuries justify taking action right now, since only then can we hope to finally correct our past and present wrongs. We are perfectly equipped to lead the change -- countless rights movements in the past have taught us how to promote change, advocate equality and urge activism for a movement. All that's left is for us to finally take a stand and decide to make a tangible difference.