Western attitudes to animals


In Western countries attitudes towards animals have been strongly influenced by Jewish and Christian religion and culture. There are numerous references to animals in the Bible. From these, and particularly from the Old Testament the general idea of human domination of animals emerged and became generally practised. Animals came to be used by man including women to provide food and clothing; as means of Ž . transport and power; for companionship and sport; and latterly for experimentation. I emphasise that animals were used. This implies that man considered animals were available for his own purposes, whether these were kind or unkind, good or bad. The animals were essentially things or property owned by man, subordinate to him and worthy of little or no consideration in their own right. However, as Western civilisation continued to develop, concern about the welfare of animals grew and legal constraints on abuse were enacted. Although there is now much legislation in Britain and other Western countries to protect animals, the traditional view that animals are the property of humans still prevails and this principle underlies most Western social and legal systems. Animals as property have a commercial value and Western customs and laws permit an owner to do what he wishes with them, within prescribed limits. Unfortunately, conflicts of interest arise between commercial interests and animal welfare, frequently to the detriment of welfare. Recently, however, there have been two developments which will benefit the welfare of food animals. The first is a move within the European Union to re-define the legal position of animals so that they are considered not just as human property, but instead as sentient beings which may also be human property. This movement is still in its early stages, but if it continues to develop, as I believe it will, it will do much to improve the welfare of animals. Wider and stronger legal recognition for the potential of animals to suffer will inevitably lead to better and more responsible treatment from their owners. The second development is the growth in Western societies of the commercial power of large food retailers and the demands of their customers, the consumers. The large retailers exercise considerable power over the supply and quality of goods they sell. They are able to impose their own demands and standards on the producers who supply farmed food to them. There is also an increasing demand by consumers in Britain for meat and eggs which have been produced under conditions conducive to the welfare of animals. The large retailers have already started to meet these demands, and the products are labelled so that the consumer can identify them in the shops. It is likely that both these movements—supplier power and consumer power—will continue and grow. Despite public demand for low prices it is likely that these factors will have an improving effect on the welfare of food animals.

Animal rights
Animal welfare is quite distinct and separate from animal rights although the two are often confused. Animal rights have come to the fore in the past 20–25 years. A number of Western writers and philosophers have argued that animals have rights in much the same way as human beings and there are now extensive ‘Animal Rights’ movements in many Western countries. I personally find it hard to concede that animals have rights, since I believe that rights, such as human rights, have to be obtained and then sustained by the recipient or possessor. Manifestly, animals can neither obtain rights for themselves, nor sustain them, or even be aware that they possess them. This will be reserved to humans. It will be, and is, a human obligation to treat animals correctly. This brings us to stewardship.