The difference between animal welfare and animal rights

I have just attended a big international conservation meeting for the past week and there was a lot of discussion about the “Cecil the Lion Phenomenon.” In many discussions, the terms animal welfare and animal rights were brought up frequently, and it was very clear that many conservation scientists do not know the difference between the terms, or the differences between those who advocate on issues that are more about individuals than species or populations. When the term “welfare” was brought up, it was often with scorn and PETA was almost always the organisation that was given as an example. This really does show a fundamental lack of understanding about advocates and organisations that represent individual animals, and that could be major (even essential) assets and allies in conservation.

The terms “welfare” and “rights” cover a wide spectrum; lumping them together is like lumping Democrats (left wing liberals) and Republicans (right wing conservatives) together and making no distinction because they are both political parties. There are nuances, but as a basic primer, here are some (very) approximate distinctions:

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The greater good: animal welfare vs. conservation

wrightAndrew Wright is a British marine biologist that has been working on the science-policy boundary around the world for over a decade. His experiences have led him to champion a better communication of science to policy makers and the lay public. His research has included a population viability analysis for the vaquita, sperm whales bioacoustics and the impacts of noise on various marine mammals. Andrew is currently working on several projects, most relating to investigating either sleeping behaviour or chronic stress in wild cetaceans. He is also spearheading efforts to bring more marketing techniques into conservation outreach.

The ever-logical Spock once said “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Then he didn’t. Then he did again. (Thanks J. J. Abrams.)

But I digress.

Regardless of which Spock you are listening to, the logic is still sound. For example, most people would agree that it is sometimes necessary to put a few people in harm’s way to protect the entire population of a nation. Likewise, a system that taxes a few of the world’s wealthiest to help out the masses is generally accepted as a good idea.

The logic also holds when it comes to helping endangered species survive and recover. Decision-makers essentially try to maximise the returns of their investments, making sure that the greatest number of animals are protected for the all-too-limited funds available to take on the task at hand.

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