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What’s the difference between animal rights and animal welfare?


Animal rights activists believe that we should not be using animals, full stop. The philosophy of animal rights is grounded in the idea that animals must not be used for human purposes. That’s not what they’re here for! It’s the idea that animals should have freedoms just as humans do: freedom from exploitation; freedom from abuse; freedom from use as e.g. food, and entertainment; freedom to live their lives as they please. Basically, the fight for animal rights hopes that one day animals can live their own lives, on their own terms, at least in certain ways and circumstances that make sense for their well-being.


Animal welfare governs the way animals are used by humans. This movement says, well, animals are being used by humans and we can’t realistically end that, so we can at least work to make it a little less horrible in some way for the animals. The animal welfare movement works for improvement in society’s treatment of animals, e.g. with regulations for their use in entertainment, laws about requirements during slaughter, with requirements for appropriate housing on farms. It seeks to lessen the suffering that they know is going to happen anyway.


Animal welfare campaigns work to decrease the probable suffering of animals in their use at the hands of humans and human society. Animal rights campaigns work to end that use. A very over-simplified, but very clear, and popular way of phrasing the difference between the two movements is that animal welfare wants bigger cages, and animal rights wants no cages.



One of the most well-known, and one of our fave, fighters for animal rights is the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), led by animal law pioneer Steven Wise. NhRP has been fighting in the USA court system using novel litigation approaches to achieve freedom for specific individual animals, like Happy the Elephant and Tommy the chimpanzee. Wise’s novel legal work uses habeas corpus orders to secure legal freedoms for certain animals, with the end goal being the ability to transfer the animals from terrible private holdings to literally the nicest sanctuaries available.


Another very famous animal rights activist is Gary Francione, a controversial figure that we have lots of thoughts about (some good and some bad). Francione is an abolitionist, meaning he believes that animals must not be treated as property in any facet, and that veganism is the moral baseline for such a position.

The most well-known welfare organisation is the SPCA (which has slightly different names depending on where you are - for our purposes RSPCA and ISPCA), which proudly boasts of being the largest and oldest animal welfare org around. The group campaigns for awareness of issues and changes in the law, and they investigate reports of animal cruelty.


We also must mention the UK Centre for Animal Law (A-Law), through which some TAAP members got their start. A-Law leads through legal education and working alongside action groups in the UK to determine how to properly interpret the law to achieve the highest welfare standards for animals. The organisation seeks to promote legal knowledge and education, to achieve stronger laws and legal frameworks for animals, and to have existing laws applied properly. (Their goal is to have animals fully protected by law, which seems quite ‘rights-y’, but in general the work is squarely to improve welfare). Also, A-Law is immensely supportive of law students ( so do drop them a line if you’re budding animal lawyer… also drop us a line).


Animal welfare campaigns are often the ones the public sees quite regularly because they affect day-to-day life and decisions for most people. These are the campaigns for things like cage-free eggs (what a scam!) and for humane slaughter (double scam! doesn’t exist!), and on issues like puppy mills (adopt don’t shop!).



TAAP believes that animals should be free to live lives unencumbered by human exploitation and that any suffering they experience should not result from human use, abuse, or interaction. Our love and support for animals and their dignity means that we consider ourselves believers in animal rights (and beyond).

However, we realise that only working on animal rights campaigns would drastically limit what we can accomplish in the existing system of animal use. Only focusing on big-picture arguments would skip over all the little-picture detail work we can do to improve the well-being of the innumerable animals already in the exploitation system. Just because we think those animals SHOULDN’T be in cages or on kill floors right now, doesn’t mean we are going to forget about them and let them suffer more than is allowed by law.

So, the short answer is we work and believe in both areas of animal support. As long as our society IS using and abusing animals, we will work to address their suffering through means within and approved by the system – e.g., pushing for appropriate food and shelter on farms – while arguing that those animals shouldn’t BE on farms in the first place. We believe that the often heard arguments for either side are both short-sighted. You’ll often hear welfarists say that working in the system is the only way to make progress and help animals now, directly, in some way, even if that way isn’t enough to save them. And you’ll hear rights fighters say that working for improved welfare is not enough, that animals will continue to suffer, and that working within the system makes us part of the system so we must push for the greater goals. And in response, TAAP does its best impression of the little girl in the GIF to her relatives on taco night and says, ‘Por qué no los dos??’

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