Public Weighs In On Animal Welfare And Animal Rights
If you’re reading this, chances are you are already somewhat familiar with the history, nuances, and aims of animal advocacy. This puts you outside of the mainstream. Animal rights and animal welfare have been debated by philosophers, scholars, scientists, and advocates, all while the public remains largely unaware. If we wish to shift public opinion on animal issues, we need to gain an understanding of how the majority of people, who are uninvolved in animal advocacy, form their attitudes toward these issues.
A recent study sought to discover how civilians in the battle for animal rights form their attitudes, what their current attitudes are, and how receptive they are to changing them. To that end, researchers recruited 51 participants in New York City of diverse ages, races, education levels, and genders, all of whom believe that animals are due some level of protection. This sample was divided into six groups and guided through a discussion about their experiences and perceptions of animals, the current state of animal affairs, the ideal treatment of animals, and legal protection for animals. They were then presented with pro-animal rights messages and anti-animal rights messages, and their receptivity to each was gauged.
The discussions revealed that participants’ attitudes toward animals were formed by three forces: norms, experience, and media. Cultural, religious, and family norms often constituted their earliest framework for understanding the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals. First-hand experiences with companion animals, or observing animals in the wild or in captivity also had a hand in informing participants’ perceptions. Documentaries that emblazoned in their minds images of animals in terrible factory farm conditions, or animals living majestically in the wild, further shaped their current ideas about the human-animal relationship.
Among those current ideas, a few themes were common to nearly all of the participants. They all agreed that animals should be treated with positivity, should be protected from undue harm, and should be afforded some measure of dignity. They tended to categorize animals into four groups for moral consideration: Pets, Food, Wild, and Pests. All participants cared about the treatment of animals, at least in the abstract, but they tended to be wary of implementing concrete protection measures. These participants were not active in the animal advocacy movement, thus their concern for the welfare of animals but lack of action created cognitive dissonance. They dealt with this psychological discomfort mainly by avoiding thinking about it too much, or by accepting that their beliefs are inconsistent with their actions.
The researchers wished to not only to capture participants’ current attitudes, but to test the flexibility of those attitudes. They invited participants to discuss the merits of animal welfare (a framework concerned with ensuring humane conditions for captive animals) and animal rights (a framework positing autonomy and moral standing of animals). They were generally receptive to the idea of ensuring animal welfare, but were hesitant to embrace an animal rights framework. When presented with pro-animal rights messages, they remained unconvinced, in part because they had difficulty conceptualizing how animal rights could be established and protected, and doubted the feasibility of implementation. Some favored rights for certain species shown to have high cognitive capabilities, but feared a slippery slope eventually extending these rights to species outside those originally selected. Many expressed a desire for more detail about proposed measures. Presented with anti-animal rights messages, participants were unswayed, and found the messaging hyperbolic. They felt the messages were designed to shut down debate, and that they ignored the seriousness of the issue.
Studying participants’ attitudes in the context of a focus group discussion has yielded not just a snapshot of their current positions, but some idea of the history that shaped those attitudes and how they might shift in the future. Key takeaways for advocates are:
- There is a disconnect between those involved in the animal advocacy and the public in terms of what we know about animal issues and how we think about them. We need to approach outreach efforts with the knowledge that most people are unfamiliar with the philosophical, legal, and scientific underpinnings of our understanding of the human-animal relationship, and it’s up to us to help fill in the gaps to give them proper context.
- Many people who support greater protection of animal welfare and animal rights in the abstract are unable to grant their full support because they feel they have not been given sufficient detail to evaluate specific measures. If advocates can provide them with specific, detailed plans for protecting animals’ interests, they should be able to achieve greater buy-in.
- The current go-to strategy for those members of the public who wish for animals to be protected but are doing nothing at present to protect them is avoidance. They may feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, or daunted by the prospect of overhauling their diets or engaging in activism. If advocates can convince them that it is feasible to bring their actions in line with their values, they can switch from a strategy of avoidance to one of integration.
- While protecting the rights of nonhuman animals is the ultimate goal of those within animal advocacy, this framework still seems radical and unfeasible to much of the public. These focus groups have shown, however, that widespread support already exists for a welfare-oriented approach. This falls short of the ultimate aim, but implementing welfare-oriented legal protections could be a useful intermediate step. The welfare approach already has broad support, would improve conditions for animals while advocates continue to work for recognition of animal rights, and could perhaps help outsiders begin to engage and identify with the animal advocacy movement.