Why Animals Matter

Why Animals Matter


Animals and Cognition

Legal Issues in Animal Protection

Animal Ethics, Welfare, & Rights

Shared Habitats & Ecosystems

Why Representation of Animals in Media Matters



Animals and Cognition


There is no doubt other animal species use tools, empathize, have memories, express preferences, and make decisions that require complex thought. That “animals are clever in human-like ways” can be traced at least as far back as Darwin and makes sense based on evolutionary continuity.[1] Yet it seems no matter what new discovery is made that ultimately brings us closer to other species in terms of capabilities, there are always those who insist on there being clear dimensions by which to distinguish humans (Us) from other animals (Them). While interpreting and valuing animal behavior that looks like ours is not necessarily the best way to determine species-specific (and relevant) behavior, it has remained a benchmark of value. Anthropomorphic interpretations can lead to a closer sense of kinship but at the same time reinforce species hierarchies based on attributes valued in human beings. While humans and nonhumans speak different languages, anyone who has spent time with other animals knows they certainly communicate. That they are conscious and capable of experiencing positive and negative sensations and emotions is a given and has been affirmed in scientific research. “Science leaders have reached a critical consensus: Humans are not the only conscious beings; other animals, specifically mammals and birds, are indeed conscious, too.”[2]

As among humans, individual variation is greater than by species.  In fact, mammalian brains are so similar that to use structural variation to determine differences is not productive.  Rather, as Ferdowsian[3] points out, species membership is often cited as a rationale for exposing animals to harm that would be considered impermissible in humans. However, there is no consistent way to draw objective moral lines based only on species differences in cognitive, emotional, or physical abilities that will exclude one or more species and include others.  The assortment of adaptive intellectual and emotional processes across species does not necessarily imply a moral hierarchy for considerations about harm avoidance. The quality of an animal’s life, his or her interests, and vulnerability to harm appear to merit more relevant consideration than species categorization.

If brain structure is the bottom line, then the similarities are great. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum[4] argues that “our imaginative sympathy” with other species should serve as our guide when trying to determine what a “just relation” between us might look like.

Legal Issues in Animal Protection

How/whether/if animals are regarded varies widely by country and, in the U.S., by state. Above all else, animals, whether kept as companions or raised for commercial purposes, are property under the law. The main areas where law comes in to play in terms of animal welfare are: housing, health, agriculture, companions (“pets”), wildlife, entertainment, fur and skins, and research. The Animal Welfare Act (1966) is the primary U.S. federal law related to animal care and conditions. It stipulates the minimum acceptable standards of care and treatment of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers.[5] Farmed animals are not protected, nor are birds, mice and rats bred and raised for research, or cold-blooded animals. Additionally, every state has an anti-cruelty law.[6] In 2013, the states with the strongest anti-cruelty laws are Illinois, Maine, Michigan, Oregon, and California.[7] The weakest are Kentucky, Iowa, South Dakota, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Thanks to activism, as of 2014, all 50 states have felony anti-cruelty laws.[8] The links between violence against nonhuman animals and violence against humans are so clear that they also contribute to greater awareness, earlier interventions, and more severe penalties for animal cruelty.[9]

The limitations of our current legal protections for other animals are summarized by legal scholar Gary Francione:

 Although there are restrictions on the use of animals (as there are on the use of all property), such restrictions, such as anticruelty laws or laws governing the use of animals in experiments, do not establish any rights for animals or impose any duties on humans that are directed ultimately to the well-being of the animal. Rather, these laws require that, in determining whether suffering is “unnecessary” or treatment is “inhumane,” we balance the interests of animals against the interests of human beings. The problem is that human interests are protected by rights in general and by the right to own property in particular. As far as the law is concerned, an animal is the personal property, or chattel, of the animal’s owner and cannot possess rights. Indeed, it is a fundamental premise of our property law that property cannot itself have rights as against human owners and that, as property, animals are objects of the exercise of human property rights.[10]

Increasingly, discussions in the legal and animal welfare communities are of rights and personhood.[11] An important point is that when those concerned with animal well-being speak of rights, they are not talking about voting, driving, owning property, education, freedom of religion, or other human-specific political privileges that we commonly think of in the realm of rights. A more useful comparison is what is thought of as basic human rights – to fresh water, food, shelter, and consideration, regardless of what groups they belong to. Similarly, other animals are also deserving of these basic rights, which also includes freedom from certain harmful experiences such as pain and suffering.


Animal Ethics, Welfare, & Rights

Based on their ability to feel, think, and care about their lives, animals deserve to be included within human’s moral community. Animals matter, according to philosopher Mary Midgley,[12] because “things matter to them.” But to what extent do animals matter to us?

Throughout history, Western culture has demonstrated various levels of concern for the welfare of nonhuman animals, with cruelty to animals being more narrowly defined in the past as anything that caused wanton suffering – suffering in excess of what is necessary to benefit humans.[13] This animal welfare perspective for “humane use” of animals can be considered mainstream today, especially in showing concern for reducing the suffering of companion animals and other animals humans find charismatic or appealing. The fact that we employ our own species’ name (“humane”) to define what is or is not kind demonstrates the weight we place on our own species’ viewpoint and perceived morality.

There is also the animal rights perspective, which advances a higher standard of moral consideration than is encompassed by human-centered worldviews such as the animal welfare perspective. The animal rights perspective recognizes nonhuman animals as fellow subjects of a life, not lesser beings or objects for human use, and therefore grants them the right to freedom from human exploitation for food, research, clothing, and entertainment. Rightists seek an end to the domestication, enslavement, and property-status of animals.[14] A goal of the movement is elimination of speciesism, a humanist bias that discriminates against the interests of other animals based on the sole fact that they are not human. Speciesism shares some parallels with racism and sexism, hierarchical systems where humans who are not white or male have historically been discriminated against, sometimes on the basis of being compared to so-called lowly and irrational animals.[15] The animal rights movement has a moral vision where humans share the planet fairly with fellow animals, give them space to live freely on their own terms, respect their agency, avoid as much harm as possible, eat a plant-based diet, care for any animals and habitats we injure, and form relationships of mutual benefit and choice.[16]

The animal protection movement as a whole, comprising welfare and rights groups, has developed rapidly over the last 150 years; at the turn of the 20th century there were about 700 animal protection organizations. One century later, the number increased to approximately 7,000 organizations with over 10 million members.[17]

Shared Habitats & Ecosystems

Some scientists have renamed our current geological epoch the “Anthropocene” to represent the profound destructive impact that the humans species is having, since the industrial revolution, on the earth’s biological systems, such as instigating the sixth mass extinction of species.[18] As all living beings and ecosystems are interdependent and reliant on biological diversity, humans have a moral obligation to repair ecosystem health and discover alternatives to unsustainable practices, such as human sprawl and destruction of natural habitats, hunting, dirty energy exploration and reliance on fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions and other prevalent forms of pollution, animal agribusiness and commercial fishing, genetic modification of organisms (GMOs), and excessive consumer consumption (which depletes shared resources like freshwater and amasses non-degradable waste like plastic).[19]

The goals of the environmental movement overlap, in part, with those of the animal protection movement when it comes to raising the status of nonhuman life in human culture and protecting wildlife habitats from exploitation. Animal and environmental protection campaigns can work together to defend endangered species and their habitats, fight climate change and other devastating forms of pollution, prevent hunting of marine mammals and harmful commercial fishing practices, end factory farming, and promote organic (non-GMO), plant-based agriculture and diets. Animal and environmental campaigns often target similar opponents, typically governments (with laws that enable oppression or lack enforcement) or corporations/industries (exploiting living beings and natural systems in a profit-centered global market). The two movements also engage the public, both as citizens who can demand institutional change from powerful organizations and as consumers who can adopt more sustainable, compassionate lifestyle choices.[20]

To enable a mass movement to support the needed protection of life and living systems in an era of environmental crisis, the media must play a role by prioritizing news coverage of these issues and engaging eco-centric and non-speciesist perspectives. In addition, advertising and entertainment media need to avoid promoting conspicuous consumption, materialism, and unsustainable lifestyles that encourage everyone, including “developing” nations to emulate this standard of living that is beyond what the planetary resources can support.[21] As part of environmental problem-solving, in her book EcoMind, activist Frances Moore Lappe encourages communication that fosters the best aspects of human nature (such as cooperation, empathy, truthfulness, sharing, fairness, and creativity) and considers what actions will enhance all life and lead us to co-existing with and co-creating with nature.[22]

Why Representation of Animals in Media Matters

To be represented in mass media, particularly in America, is to be validated. Absence is erasure. As a social institution whose influence is barely rivaled by family, religion, or education, the mass media provide a curriculum, a way of learning about ourselves and the world around us. What do we learn? As is the case with people we are unlikely to meet or have not yet met in person, knowledge of members of other species that comes almost entirely from television, movies, the Internet, or other symbolic means, is likely to be stereotypical.[23] Advertising, news, cinema, television programs, and the Web are carriers of deliberately constructed messages that use animals and their images in ways that directly and indirectly impact animal and human lives.

Children learn from the media. In some cases, it is the only place they learn about aspects or individuals in the world who are unlike them. Corbett[24] writes that that there are three ways to learn about nature: 1-directly (being in nature), 2-indirectly (zoos, aquaria), 3-symbolically (mediated forms). The more removed a child is from direct nature experiences, the more likely he or she will have a distorted view of it and those who inhabit it. Thus, the kinds of representations, the language used to describe animals, all matter in not creating an overly positive image or overly negative apprehension. When animals are rendered symbolically (such as in animation), the circumstances and conditions of their real lives are made invisible. As a result, they are even more vulnerable, particularly when they are laughed at, presented as fools, or used as symbolic stand-ins for human emotions (in greeting cards, comic strips, commercials, and multi-media content). Rather than bringing us closer in understanding them, which is what healthy levels of anthropomorphism can do, these representations further distance them from us. One of the consequences is that, in the case of endangered species, repeated exposure in media tends to result in viewers believing animals such as chimps are less endangered than they actually are.[25] Representations of predatory animals such as sharks, bears, cougars, and wolves can make people more fearful and distrustful than is necessary.[26] Furthermore, to represent animals as only bad or only good not only belies their true nature, but also represents real risk to them and to us. It is important to think how real animals and animated animals are used in media.

Representation is a tool of power and a dynamic that needs to be studied to reveal how it reifies the human/non-human dichotomy and ideological screening. For example, American news coverage of farmed animals typically reinforces the status quo agribusiness view of them as bodies not beings, tending to objectify them discursively through: 1) commodification, 2) failure to acknowledge their emotional perspectives, and 3) failure to describe them as inherently valuable individuals; while the news sometimes addresses farmed animal welfare, discussions of whether it is right for us to breed, use, kill, and eat them are rare.[27]

Drawing on John Dewey, animals “do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned”with animals “to make this fact evident in its various implications” (ital orig).[28]



[1] Shettleworth, S. J. (2010).  Clever animals and killjoy explanations. Trends in Cognitive Science, 1-5. p. 1.

[2] http://www.earthintransition.org/2012/07/scientists-declare-nonhuman-animals-are-conscious/. See also The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals, and the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon, 2009.

[3] Ferdowsian, H. (2014). Ethical Problems Concerning the Use of Animals in Psychiatric Research. (under review for publication)

[4] Nussbuam, M. (2006, February 3). The moral status of animals.  Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Moral-Status-of-Animals/25792

[5] Amended in 1970, 1976, 1985, 1990, 2002 and 2007.

[6] For state-by-state laws, see ASPCA at http://www.aspca.org/fight-cruelty/advocacy-center/state-animal-cruelty-laws , http://www.animallaw.info/statutes/topicstatutes/sttoac.htm

[7] Animal Legal Defense Fund (2013). http://aldf.org/resources/advocating-for-animals/animal-protection-laws-of-the-united-states-of-america-and-canada/. http://aldf.org/press-room/press-releases/annual-study-names-2013s-top-five-states-to-be-an-animal-abuser/

[8] See “South Dakota Lawmakers Enact Stronger Anti-Cruelty Laws” for more information: http://www.humanesociety.org/news/news_briefs/2014/03/south-dakota-lawmakers-enact-stronger-animal-cruelty-penalties-031414.html

[9] See also Ascione, F. R.. & Arkow, P. (1999). Child abuse, domestic violence, and animal abuse. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.  And Linzey, A. (2009). The link between animal abuse and human violence. East Sussex, UK: Sussex Academic Press.

[10] Francione, Gary. L. (1995). Animals, property, and the law. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 4.

[11] See the Nonhuman Rights Project and the publications of attorney Steven Wise: http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/

[12] Midgley, Mary (2008). “Why Farm Animals Matter.” In The Future of Animal Farming, edited by Marian Stamp Dawkins & Roland Bonney, 21–31. Oxford: Blackwell Pub. p. 21

[13] Linzey, Andrew, & Paul Clarke. (2004). Animal Rights: A Historical Anthology. New York: Columbia University Press.

[14] See books on animal rights philosophy such as: Francione, Gary L. (1996). Rain Without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.  And Nibert, David Alan. (2013). Animal Oppression and Human Violence: Domesecration, Capitalism, and Global Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press. And Regan, Tom. (1983). The Case for Animal Rights. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[15] For speciesism, see Singer, Peter (1990). Animal Liberation. 2nd ed. New York: Random House. And Dunayer, Joan (2004). Speciesism, New York: Lantern Books.  For information on parallels between speciesism, sexism, and racism, see books such as: Adams, Carol J. (1990). The Sexual Politics of Meat: A Feminist-vegetarian Critical Theory. New York: Continuum. And Harper, A. Breeze (2010). Sistah Vegan: Black Female Vegans Speak on Food, Identity, Health, and Society, New York: Lantern Books. And Spiegel, Marjorie (1996). The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York: Mirror Books.

[16] See various visions of animal rights in books such as these: Donaldson, Sue, & Kymlicka, Will (2011). Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, Oxford: Oxford University Press. And  Hall, Lee (2010). On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal Rights Philosophy Down to Earth, Darien, CT: Nectar Bat Press.  And Steiner, Gary (2008). Animals and the Moral Community: Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship. New York: Columbia University Press.

[17] Beers, Diane L. (2006). For the Prevention of Cruelty: The History and Legacy of Animal Rights Activism in the United States. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press. p. 3

[18] Steffen, W., Crutzen, P., & McNeill, J. (2007). The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature? Ambio, 36(8), 614–621.

[19] See resources such as: Wilson, Edward O. (2010). The Diversity of Life, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. And Jamieson, Dale (2002). Morality’s Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press.

[20] See resources such as: Kheel, Marti (2008). Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.  And Freeman, Carrie P. (2010). Meat’s Place on the Campaign Menu: How U.S. Environmental Discourse Negotiates Vegetarianism. Environmental Communication, 4(3), 255–276.  And Varner, Gary E. (1998). In Nature’s Interests? Interests, Animal Rights, and Environmental Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

[21] See resources such as: Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Viking. And a DVD by Brockhoff, G. (2010). Shop ’til You Drop: The Crisis of Consumerism. Northampton, MA: Media Education Foundation.

[22] Lappe, Frances Moore (2011). EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think, to Create the World We Want, New York: Nation Books.

[23] For more on this, see Merskin, D. (2010). Media, Minorities, & Meaning: A Critical Introduction. New York: Peter Lang.  And Wilson, C. C., Guttierez, F., Chao, L. M. (2003). Racism, Sexism, and the Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[24] Corbett, J. B. (2006). Communicating nature: How we create and understand environmental messages. Washington, DC: Island Press.

[25] Schroepfer, K. K., Rosati, A. G., Chartrand, T., & Hare, B. (2011). Use of “entertainment” chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding conservation status. PLOS ONE. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0026048

[26]  Røskaft, E., Bjerkec, T., Kaltenbornc, B., Linnellb, J. D. C., Andersen, R. (2003). Patterns of self-reported fear towards large carnivores among the Norwegian public. Evolution and Human Behavior (24), 184-198.  And Peschak, T. P. (2014). Sharks and people: Exploring our relationship with the most feared fish in the sea. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[27] Freeman, C. P. (2009). This Little Piggy Went to Press: The American News Media’s Construction of Animals in Agriculture. The Communication Review, 12(1), 78 -103.

[28] Dewey, J. (1954). Art as experience. New York: Putnam, pp. 3-4.


 For citation purposes, this page was last updated December 2014