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:

Animal welfarist – advocates for strict adherence to humane practices to reduce stress and suffering. In the Cecil the Lion case, animal welfarists would be highlighting the fact that Cecil the Lion was shot with a bow and arrow, and it took two days before he was finally killed with a bullet. An example of a prominent animal welfare advocate would be someone like Temple Grandin, who worked with the cattle industry to reduce stress and suffering in their animals going to slaughter. Most conservation scientists could probably consider themselves animal welfarists, as they try to reduce suffering in the animals that they are studying, or at the least are legally required to do so via institutional animal (eg IACUC) regulations. (Shorthand – with welfarists, all uses of animals are acceptable, but suffering must be reduced.)

Animal protectionist – as above, but considers some uses of animals to be unacceptable for various reasons. An example of well-known protection advocates might be Jane Goodall, Chris Packham, or David Attenborough. An animal protectionist might express concern about trophy hunting as being “killing for entertainment or pleasure” but not about hunting for subsistence. A good example would be the many NGOs that protest so-called “scientific whaling” but do not oppose subsistence whaling, although they might push for more humane killing methods. Another example might be those that advocate for additional welfare considerations for primates, elephants, cetaceans and some bird species (e.g., parrots and corvids, such as ravens) because of their more sophisticated cognitive abilities. In the Cecil the Lion case, animal protectionists might have concerns about trophy hunting potentially exacerbating poaching or consider it an inappropriate consumptive use of lions, but conversely might support captive breeding for conservation and ecotourism. Some conservation scientists would likely fall into the animal protectionist category, somewhere along the spectrum. (Shorthand – with protectionists, there are some animal uses that are inappropriate.)

Animal rightist – As the name suggests, animal rightists believe animals have fundamental rights, and may advocate for essentially a “bill of rights” for some, or all, animals. This again is a spectrum, with those on the far end advocating that even keeping domesticated pets is wrong. But conversely, many religious cultures are essentially animal rightist, such as Buddhism. Many vegetarians, and especially vegans, though not those who practice these eating patterns for health purposes, would effectively be somewhere in this spectrum. Conservation scientists often lump all animal rightists with extremists, but that is akin to saying that all Republicans (for the Americans) or Tory/Conservative voters (for the British) are just like Sarah Palin/Donald Trump or Nigel Farage, respectively (other nations feel free to add your own extremist fruitloops). Many conservation scientists might be surprised to realize that their philosophy towards animals makes them an animal rightist to some extent. Many animal rights activists are often towards the extreme end of the spectrum, but some are quite moderate. An example of a famous animal rights advocate would be Ricky Gervais or the Dalai Lama. But it is often the more extreme advocates who tend to get highlighted by the press, such as PETA, but it should be noted that mainstream animal NGOs with large memberships (of a million people or more), such as the RSPCA and The Humane Society of the US, largely have staff and members that fall in this category, although officially their policies are protectionist. In the Cecil the Lion case, an animal rightist would likely argue that all wildlife hunting is wrong (definitely for sport purposes, but likely against hunting for subsistence too), but with only the real extremists being against utilizing lions in other ways, such as ecotourism. Thus it’s highly likely that the majority of animal rightists could be supportive of conservation initiatives such as ecotourism.

As noted above, many conservation scientists treat animal welfare and animal rights with disdain and dismiss them as “whackos”, but by doing so they are alienating a large pool of potential allies and even a substantial sector of the conservation science community. As with many aspects of the real world, things are not black and white, but many shades of grey, and the greys of the animal advocate community should not be dismissed as merely opponents, but should be engaged.

After all, apart from anything else, they vastly outnumber conservation scientists.


  1. Thank you for this post! It is an important, but often overlooked distinction (which is about to become more so since the AP stylebook has been updated to recommend using “animal welfare” in lieu of “animal rights”). I would just like to add one more point that may be of interest to conservation scientists, which is that animal rights activists tend to oppose control of invasive species, placing more focus on the rights of the individual animals rather than on the broader ecological balance.

  2. Simon Ward · August 19, 2015

    I think the root cause for the confusion can be pinned on NGOs that intentionally, or at least knowingly, advocate muddled positions. HSUS and IFAW are two that historically have projected themselves to the public as animal welfarist, which they are to an extent, while failing to mention that their leaders are frequently strong advocates of animal rights. Even the venerable WWF falls into this trap. On almost all issues, WWF is clearly a conservation NGO, yet on whaling, when WWF US and UK are in charge, it becomes protectionist. (Oh, Nigel Farage is most decidedly not Tory/Conservative.)

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