Animal rights proceeds from the notion that nonhuman animals possess, as people do, a set of basic inalienable rights -- to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- by virtue of their status as living, sentient beings. Some advocates of this view would grant such rights only to animals such as primates possessing relatively high capacities for "thought" and learned response. Other animal rights activists make no such distinction and would extend these rights to all living creatures. The common thread linking all such advocates is their conviction that it is unjust for man to regard animals as property, and, by extension, to use animals to serve his needs or desires in terms of food, entertainment, cosmetics, clothing, scientific testing, etc.
The concept of animal rights is often confused with animal welfare, which is a philosophy that opposes the infliction of unnecessary suffering on animals but does not assign specific "rights" to them. The classic expression of animal welfare and man's obligation, as the pinnacle of creation, to exercise a humane stewardship of the animals below (and to some degree dependent on him) is Matthew Scully's Dominion.
The Animal Rights movement began in the second half of the twentieth century as a radical effort not so much to improve the lives of animals in the care of humans, but to terminate entirely the connection between people and animals.
The two most prominent academic proponents of animal rights today are Peter Singer and Thomas Regan. Regarded as the bible of the animal rights movement, Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation argues from the axiom that man should grant respect and moral worth to animals not on the basis of their intelligence or any particular cognitive skill, but rather because of their ability to experience pain and suffering. Singer brands any denial of animals' basic "rights" a form of discrimination, comparable to racism and sexism, called "speciesism." He deems it wrong to assign greater inherent value to human beings than to any other form of animal life – be it a bird, a fish, or a mouse. He rejects the biblical notion that mankind is nature’s steward and master; that humans have souls and animals do not; and that people are uniquely made in the image of God. "All three [of the foregoing axioms] taken together do have a very negative influence on the way in which we think about animals, " Singer says, explaining that his mission is to challenge the concept of the "superiority of human beings."
Regan’s position on animals differs somewhat from Singer’s. Regan asserts that because the basic moral rights of humans are grounded in their possession of certain cognitive abilities, the higher animals that possess similar abilities ought to be granted the same basic moral rights as humans. He does not, however, call for extending those rights to every form of animal life.
Those who reject the concept of animal rights argue that animals are not entitled to such rights because they are incapable of entering into a social contract, making moral choices, or understanding what rights are. According to the philosopher Roger Scruton, because only human beings have duties, "[t]he corollary is inescapable: we alone have rights." Michigan University philosophy professor Carl Cohen elaborates on this theme: "Only in a community of beings capable of self-restricting moral judgments can the concept of a right be correctly invoked."
Some critics of the "animal rights" movement point out that such rights are founded on a double standard that gives animals preference over humans. Robert Bidinotto, a writer on environmental issues, puts it this way:
"Strict observance of animal rights forbids even direct protection of people and their values against nature's many predators. Losses to people are acceptable . . . losses to animals are not. Logically then, beavers may change the flow of streams, but Man must not. Locusts may denude hundreds of miles of plant life . . . but Man must not. Cougars may eat sheep and chickens, but Man must not."
Those who advocate animal rights are strongly inclined to adopt vegetarian or vegan diets. They also tend to oppose, and often boycott, a number of industries that use animals; these include factory farming, the slaughter of animals, and the production of clothing made from animal skins. Moreover, they refuse to use products such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, or certain inks or dyes known to contain animal byproducts. Nor will they purchase products containing ingredients that have been tested on animals.
A growing number of animal rights activists engage in direct action -- in many cases illegal -- such as the covert removal of animals from facilities that use them; the damage of property at such facilities in order to cause financial loss; or the threat of violence toward animal experimenters or others involved in the use of animals. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was the trailblazer for this movement, popularizing such tactics as dumping buckets of fake blood on people’s fur coats, or on the clothing and property of meat-manufacturing executives. PETA co-founder and former president Ingrid Newkirk summed up the goal of today's modern Animal Rights movement in a speech at the Animal Rights 2002 Convention, where she said: "Our goal is total animal liberation." That term refers to the permanent elimination of what animal rights activists consider “exploitation”; i.e., any use of animals for purposes of food, labor, and entertainment. The world they envision has no place for the meat, dairy, leather, fur, silk, and wool industries. They likewise object to fishing, horse racing, zoos, circuses, the use of animals in medical research, and even pet ownership.
On the extremist fringe of the Animal Rights movement is a violent element willing to inflict violence on people and institutions it perceives to be mistreating animals. Such an approach is embodied by the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a loosely organized, self-identified “animal rights” organization that is classified as a terrorist group by the FBI. ALF's members and affiliates "carr[y] out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters, usually through the damage and destruction of property." Counted among these "exploiters" are hunters, fishermen, butchers, factory farmers, restaurateurs, and those who use animals to entertain the public (in zoos, circuses, and rodeos). The fur, meat, egg, and dairy industries are also viewed as major offenders, as are scientists and technicians involved in laboratory animal testing. All of these pursuits, charges ALF, "profit from the misery and exploitation of animals."
ALF candidly acknowledges that it takes "illegal actions ... to bring about animal liberation." These actions usually involve rescuing animals from laboratories or inflicting economic damage (by means of theft, vandalism, arson, and sabotage) on those that ALF sees as “animal abusers." In 2004, John E. Lewis, Deputy Assistant Director of the FBI's counterterrorism division, stated that during the preceding ten years ALF and a related group, the Earth Liberation Front, had engaged in more than 1,000 criminal acts and had caused more than $100 million in damage.