The animal welfare baby and the animal rights bathwater 

The chief executive of World Horse Welfare has called for a “social licence” between the wider public and the horse industry. Gone are the days when lay people deferred to “expert” horse people as to which practices were acceptable and which were not; today the pressure from other parts of society on the treatment of horses is increasing. To establish this social licence, equestrian bodies need to be honest and transparent and they need to take decisive action to eradicate anything that harms the welfare of the horse, WHW Chief Executive Roly Owers argued.

Mr Owers highlighted the unique horse-human partnership seen in equestrian competition, and the great respect in which equestrians held their equine athlete partners. He encouraged industry stakeholders to respond to public perceptions by actively engaging with people whose lives don’t revolve around horses in the same way, and by demonstrating excellent welfare practices, pointing out that welfare rules do exist within sporting bodies’ regulations and emphasising that these must be enforced, and must run the spread of the horse’s life from foaling to death.

However in some reports of Mr Owers’ speech there could be some confusion and generalisation about the motivations of “animal rights” activists. He is quoted as saying, “This growing movement to recognise the rights of animals is often conflated with animal welfare…………..But animal welfare is about improving conditions and treatment of animals, not seeking to ban their involvement with humans. There is a big difference.”

In my research and experience I have not found that all those who campaign for animal rights seek to ban all animals’ involvement with humans (though certainly a proportion may). Rather, many who might sit in this category are concerned that animals whose lives are managed by humans, be that on farms, in zoos, on free-roaming reserves, as sporting athletes or as companions, are allowed to exercise choice and indeed agency in psychological terms, and are able to express their species-specific behaviours with the frequency and intensity that their natural activity budgets determine. That’s certainly not a call for stopping all human-animal interaction,  and both those conditions are clearly articulated as desirable criteria in evaluating the “life worth living” or “good life” welfare standards called for in the Five Domains model (see link below, Mellor, D. J. (2016). Updating Animal Welfare Thinking: Moving beyond the “Five Freedoms” towards “A Life Worth Living.” Animals : An Open Access Journal from MDPI, 6(3), 21.

To generalise all those concerned with what has come to be defined as animal rights, both popularly and as an ethical position in moral philosophy (see Peter Singer and Tom Regan), and to set this apart from a drive to improve animal welfare, may be to create an unhelpful dualism that all those who seek to improve the lot of animals might usefully consider transcending.

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