Communicating About Animal “Rights” vs Animal “Welfare”

The language our society uses to discuss the human-animal connection starts at a source, and spreads outward, influencing our beliefs and actions, our view of pet ownership, our support or objections to legislation that affects dog ownership, and how we react to animals in research. For 20 years, the animal rights philosophy has controlled the message stream. Its position has become intrinsic, one and the same with how most people view the human-animal connection. With that position of control, animal rights groups can manipulate sympathies, motivating people to act in particular ways.

How did groups like PETA and the Human Society of the United States gain control over the essence of how we should interact with animals? How do they maintain this power in each new debate? Can the animal rights position be reduced through message warfare? Are there more subtle ways to change the landscape?

Public Views

This discussion begins, roughly, with two sides: “animal rights” (AR) and “animal welfare” (AW). To dog breeders, veterinary researchers who work with animals every day, and people involved in legislation affecting pet ownership, it is clear which messages are coming from which side. But to the general public, there is just one side – animal rights. Animal welfare is either invisible or perceived as a group that does not care for animals the way animal rights proponents do.

Dr. John Hamil, a veterinarian since 1971 and past president of the California Veterinary Medical Association, has devoted vast energy promoting AW views. For the past six years, he has served on the American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Committee and their Human-Animal Bond Committee. He has earned the Hills Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics award. His front-line experience has taught him valuable lessons, informative to anyone wishing to reveal the compassion in AW positions.

The way the issue is discussed is revealing. “People often use the term 'animal rights' when they actually mean 'animal welfare,'” Hamil explains. In his clinic, he sees this when interviewing new veterinary hires. “I ask them if they believe in animal rights. Their answer always is, 'of course!'”

Patti Strand is director of the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), a group working to educate and spread knowledge about AW for all pet groups, not just dogs. She and her colleagues give presentations and provide materials explaining AW philosophies.

Strand sees how assumed meanings can frame the debate. “Many people refer to themselves as animal rights supporters. They think it's just a souped-up, intense version of what they believe in. If you do focus groups asking questions about hot issues, people's first response is a regurgitation of animal rights positions.”

What makes this odd is that the public does not actually agree with most AR positions. About 70 million American households own pets, for example, and do not want limitations on their rights. Strand's group does polling to prove this. “The American public is somewhere in the middle on most debates, exactly where animal welfare is. For example, 98% of the public eats meat, a pretty good acid test.”

Hamil sees something similar in follow-up questions to those new veterinary hires. “After they say they're in favor of animal rights, I tell them some of the views of animal rights groups, and then they say, 'oh, no, I don't agree with that.'”

This is a potential crack in the AR armor. But it is important to look at how AR groups gained such control, despite a public that truly disagrees with them.

Deep Roots of Animal Rights

In many ways, it comes down to the same marketing tools corporations use to convince customers of a need to purchase certain products.

“Animal rights groups have engaged in very sophisticated technologies and polling to get their points across,” Strand says. “They've developed colorful brochures, appeared on television. Whenever there's a ballot initiative, they poll to figure out precisely which words move people in a certain direction, what words won't work, and they go with that.”

“Good people, concerned and caring people, get animal rights messages at so many different levels,” Hamil explains. “The animal rights groups are well funded, they are patient, and they are organized and smart. They have a plan, and they are so consistent in their message that over the last 20 years they've totally changed the playing field. Twenty years ago, they got no respect. Today, people assume what the animal rights groups say is correct.”

On the surface, it seems that the AW side just needs to create equally powerful media messages, explain why each assumption runs counter to most people's beliefs. While some progress can be made with this kind of direct confrontation, Strand concedes, “They have won that part of the battle.”

Why does she say that, and how is this instructive to AW proponents?

The Beauty and Dilemma of Complexity

Although there are two opposing sides, only AR groups actually seek to be a “side” at all. To exist, they need an enemy to oppose. By contrast, AW seeks to be a natural, non-conflict position. It does not need or want opponents.

AR groups can present issues more simplistically. Cathie Turner is the executive director of the Concerned Dog Owners of California (CDOC), a group focused on leveling the rights/welfare playing field. “The animal rights side has been selling issues as if there are easy answers. They have a PowerPoint slide saying, 'all dogs and cats must be sterilized.'”

Everyone on the AR side can monolithically follow statements like this. The AW position cannot, and probably should not try to, become monolithic. What would be the good of victory in this battle if in the end you communicate messages that are untrue to your positions? But this is a dilemma for AW proponents.

“Often, someone works for a shelter and goes over to the animal rights side because they want to save dogs. They think animal rights has the answers,” Turner explains. “People on our side understand there's no way to save every dog. But when we say that, we sound cruel.”

Some of this stems from human nature. “People are willing to accept a simple lie, rather than a complicated truth,” Hamil says.

AW positions are usually much more nuanced, requiring more attention to detail over a longer period of time, and cannot be explained with simple graphics. As Turner explains, “The animal rights people have emotion on their side. They present issues as a one-legged stool. We're trying to say it's a three-legged stool. Yes, spay and neuter should be available. If that were all there was, we wouldn't be debating. The second leg is affordable licensing, to prevent dogs from ending up in shelters. The third leg is positive identification – microchipping.”

Hamil concurs. “People involved in welfare – scientists, veterinarians, breeders – reason things out and present detailed arguments. But this is largely an emotional battle. Most of us in the welfare community aren't comfortable in that mode, so we fall back on reasoned approaches. It's difficult to deal with emotional issues in rational ways.”

According to the rules of scientific process, scientists resist statements that lack facts, or which contain knowingly simplistic detail. “Scientists generally make statements they can support or prove,” Hamil says. “Animal rights has no such rule. They can say whatever necessary to win.”

Giving into emotional arguments might allow scientists to win occasional battles, but would mean abandoning the valued principles that make them scientists.

Using their media savvy, AR groups make full use of simple, inaccurate images. “They engage in 'conflict fund raising,'” Strand explains. “They take a victim, say a dog in a horrible situation we're all revolted by. They find an unattractive person from a class of people, say a breeder, and they make that person stand in for the entire class. Then they show someone from the animal rights community coming in to save the day. It's easy: victim, villain, vindicator. They're brilliant at it, and they do it all the time.”

Call this the VVV approach.

Contrast that with Turner's three-legged stool, with each leg branching into greater detail. There is plenty of proof that the AW position cares about animals, and has answers that will reduce suffering. But it cannot be presented quickly like the VVV approach. “Unlike animal rights, we can't just sing one tune,” Turner says. “We're more of a symphony.”

“With animal welfare, we can't be so simplistic,” Strand explains. “Animal rights can say, 'we're against animal ownership.' We don't have such positions, because there are many viewpoints and opinions. We look at each situation differently. We can't say, 'this is always what we stand for.'”

Engage in Battle?

The AR side has learned how to manipulate public sentiment, assumed control of the basic lexicon of the human-animal bond, and owns positions easily conveyed in the media. In the face of all this, can the AW position become more organized, while maintaining its nuanced, complex position?

Some say the way to beat AR is to battle them directly: they spread negative messages about breeders, dog owners, and researchers; you launch an attack campaign against AR. With their considerable marketing war chest, and because AW messages are more complex, direct confrontation may only work a fraction of the time.

Instead, experts from the battleground say greater success may come from developing positive ways of emphasizing the benefits of the AW position, mentioning AR as little as possible.

Cite Facts

“Statistics prove that when you have mandatory spay and neuter, more dogs are killed,” Turner says, citing some of CDOC's work in California. “We know when you increase licensing and identification, fewer dogs are killed. In response, we've put together a demonstration project in some cities to license more dogs and move away from mandatory spay and neuter.”

This is an example of an effort that, however complex, can be conveyed clearly to the public. “No animal rights groups are stepping forward to do anything like this,” Turner says. “But we don't say it's against animal rights. We just talk about how we're pushing ahead with our projects to save dogs.”

Turner's organization was behind another project that speaks directly to people's hearts. “We got a check-off box placed on the income tax form where anyone can contribute funds for voluntary spay and neuter at animal shelters. We didn't even market it last year and raised $200,000. This year, our goal is $500,000. It can be done.”

Turner's efforts are just two examples of the kind of work AW proponents can become familiar with and talk about in positive ways.

“If you start with an attack on HSUS and PETA, people turn off,” Hamil says. “To get people's attention, we need to all be educated with arguments about how pets are well served by animal welfare positions.”

Show You Care

The issue of pet overpopulation is a hot topic, often raised by AR groups to gain public sympathy. In response, there is often a tendency on the AW side to argue that there is no such issue. But the public already takes overpopulation as a given. Denying it outright plays into the hands of AR: they can show their opponents as uncaring or unaware of the issues, a perfect opportunity to employ the VVV approach.

Strand says that overpopulation discussions have the potential to harm AW's public image. “In San Mateo, we were involved in a fight over breeding bans. It was frustrating, because statistics show overpopulation becoming a thing of the past. But we couldn't say that, because it would make us seem uncaring.”

Turner says the way AW proponents engage this issue should shift. Although pet overpopulation is less of an issue today, she says, “Healthy, adoptable dogs are killed. Instead of saying there's no overpopulation, we should emphasize that we want to understand the human-dog relationship. At one point, those shelter dogs were members of a family. Let's not just take 'the other side.' We want to figure out what goes wrong in those families.”

Strand's work on the same issue gives her insights about how to mention facts carefully. “Yes, facts may be there, but it's a real art form to bring them forward. If you do it wrong, the other side looks like the decent ones and you end up looking like you have a vested interest in something bad for animals.”

Turner says it is powerful to cite specific bills introduced by AW. “We can say we really don't want to see any dogs euthanized, and we can prove it by showing what dog owners and breeders are doing. You can say, 'here are bills we're been behind that reduce euthanasia.'”

“We have to show the compassionate side of what we do,” Strand emphasizes. “We have to show we're experts at what we do: we donate money to canine health, we care about animal health. We take it for granted that everyone knows this, but instead of promoting our work in a positive way, too often people simply say, 'we're not one of them.' To reach the public, we need to do more than that.”

Appeal to the Public

Hamil emphasizes that there may be unconscious reasons why people are sympathetic to AR messages. “For the most part, people today think animal rights is the only way they can connect with the natural world. There's a lot of uneasiness about our disconnection. We need to think about this when we're talking to people. If someone says de-clawing is cruel, say, 'did you know that de-clawing prevents cats from being put to sleep?' If someone thinks de-barking a dog is evil, ask, 'would you rather see the dog sent to a shelter?' That often helps people understand that our position saves animals.”

With the speed at which modern messages spread, language and particular words have incredible power, and must be crafted with care. The goal is not to beat the AR army, but rather to speak to the hearts of the public.

“If we're talking to the general public, people who might be leaning towards animal rights,” Turner emphasizes, “we must be clear about what works. We have to be consistent in our arguments. We should always talk about policy, and be reasonable.”

Debates over a single word can carry the risk of defining your position negatively. For example, AR groups have pushed for acceptance of the term “guardian” when referring to pets. Ten years ago, there was not much discussion about dog ownership. But AR groups have used their marketing prowess to build larger meaning behind “guardianship.” They have won the public heart: most people are now sensitive to the term “guardian,” even if they do not understand (and would not agree with) the politics behind it.

AW proponents argue that “owner” is correct. In their opposition, breeders and dog owners may over-emphasize not only the word, but the concept of ownership, to a point where they appear to say something they do not mean.

“Our organization is totally against phrasing like 'guardian,'” Turner says. “But we have to change our language so we're not offensive to the public. We have to tone down our references to dogs as property. We must stop saying that no one can tell us what to do with our dogs.”

The term “guardian” should not be accepted. But AW proponents should not shift themselves to an extreme position just to oppose the term. This single word debate is a microcosm of the entire welfare/rights battle.

The Goal

The subtle goal is to create a positive public impression, so AW messages become as natural and automatic as AR messages. The practical benefit to all this is the passing of laws favorable to AW.

This requires direct communication with lawmakers, which is the job of people like Gail LaBerge, who for 10 years has worked as a registered lobbyist for the AKC and a legislative specialist in the Georgia Canine Coalition. When she discusses legislation that may harm or help dog ownership, the collective public impression of AW proponents is the hidden partner at the negotiating table.

“It's very important that they look at our side as dependable, honest, and straightforward, but also reasonable,” LaBerge explains. “No matter how passionate we are about an issue, we need to stick to facts.”

This is where building positive messages, independent of AR, comes into play. If the AW side as a whole is informed and careful, and attractive to the public, lawmakers are much more likely to propose, or oppose, laws in ways that support AW philosophies.

“We need to provide legislators with the best information,” LaBerge says. “We should know the source of ideas. To do our job, we need to track down facts before speaking about something. That's how we get everyone's support. It's not enough just to have the fancy behind us.”

A Way Forward

This is an incremental battle. Success requires patience as each new message settles into public consciousness.

Strand admits that AR groups have secured territory in this battle. But she believes the bigger prize of winning public opinion is in the hands of AW. “With all the challenges, facts are on our side. Decency to humans and animals is on our side. If we create a forum and opportunities to explain to the public what we do and what we're about, we'll win. It can be done.”