Today is #LightThePath Day, in which activists worldwide plan to shine a light on animal cruelty and the path to freedom for nonhuman animals (animals). Wearing blue shirts and holding candles, activists in more than 100 countries will post photographs on social media of places that represent violence toward animals. Advocates aim to highlight how animal protection is the social movement of our time and how it is now “their turn.”
As a physician and public health specialist who has worked in the areas of medicine, human rights, animal protection, and ethics, I am deeply concerned about human and animal suffering. But I’m one of very few doctors who work on behalf of people and animals.
Today, the human and animal rights movements work in separate silos. Some people feel like they have to pick one or the other – either working for people or working for animals.
I disagree; advocacy is not a zero sum game. Here’s why:
1. Our Shared Vulnerability
We are all deeply vulnerable beings.
Suffering among nonhuman animals is no less that ours. And it’s possible that they suffer even more than many of us do, simply because of their inability to understand what is happening to them, make sense of their plight, escape from it, or alter their conditions.
Like children, animals cannot always protect themselves from fear, pain, and distress – particularly if they are dependent on humans for their needs.
Animals have no political power, simply because they live in a world dominated by humans. Legally, they are property. They are bought and sold. Animals are easily trapped, restrained, and transported by physical force. In captivity, animals are completely dependent upon humans – whether those humans are kind or malicious, attentive or neglectful. And animals, like many humans across the world, are subjected to multiple, compounded sources of vulnerability throughout their lives – from birth to death.
2. What’s Good For Them Is Good For Us
Treating animals better also helps people.
Factory farming – which contributes to the majority of meat, dairy, and egg production – is responsible for soil, water, and air pollution. And meat production is a bigger factor contributing to climate change than cars, planes, boats, and trains put together.
When we leave meat, dairy, and eggs off our plates, we’re also healthier – reducing our risk for heart disease, many forms of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and other diseases.
3. Violence Against Animals Is Violence Against Humans
Historically, cruelty against children and animals were treated as a united cause. Even as late as the nineteenth century, activists, philanthropists, and others recognized that violence against children and animals shared common origins. Policy measures and sanctions against cruelty to children and animals were thought to require the same solutions.
Violence against animals and vulnerable human populations were seen as a slippery slope. Societies began to emerge to protect the most vulnerable members of society, including animals. Some of the most influential societies were the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Animals in Europe and the United States. These societies focused on education and respecting animals as the first step toward civilization.
4. It’s What’s Right
One of the most central tenets in medicine and society more generally is “primum non nocere” – “do no harm.”
Historically, causes to protect animals and vulnerable humans stemmed from the same ideological roots and shared a common moral vision. Emphasis was placed on kindness, mercy, and protection from violence and abuse. Gradually, with increased secularization, emphasis shifted to the importance of justice, respect, rights, though pain and suffering remained a central focus.
With time, causes to protect people and animals went their separate ways. We now have many important laws to protect people. In the meantime, animals have become perhaps the most underrepresented and most victimized beings on the planet.
5. Justice For All Depends On Justice For All
At the heart of every human rights resolution is a conviction that we should not be unjustly imprisoned or suffer torture and other trespasses.
There is no reason this conviction shouldn’t also apply to animals.
Many people worry about what it would mean to people if we take the lives of animals more seriously. But, fortunately, recognizing the needs of other animals does not minimize who we are as people. On the contrary, future advancements can help enlighten and benefit us, similar to how recognizing the needs, rights, and strengths of women and girls has benefitted men and boys in ways that are impossible to fully articulate.
As Steve Wise writes in his book Rattling the Cage, “the long struggles over the legal status of fetuses, slaves, Native Americans, women, and corporations have never been over whether they are human, but whether justice demands that they should…count in the law.”
In the debate about who deserves legal rights, we’ve forgotten about what people and animals need. We need a sincere, principled, and unremitting commitment to basic rights for all. While further progress needs to be made on behalf of vulnerable human populations, the rights of people and animals are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, there is common ground occupied by those working on behalf of people and animals – both because of the common potential for suffering and because many solutions to successfully combat prejudice, abuse, and violence are universal.
Really, what can we lose by being more compassionate beings?