Written about 2001, last edited 2023/06/27
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
-- Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi


Much of what has been written on the Internet concerning animal rights and the ethical treatment of animals is emotional rather than rational. My principal aim here is to examine the concept of animal rights logically; and to compare it with the idea of human rights, logically.

I expect that many who might read this page will consider me to be an annoying do-gooder. I am content with that label, considering the alternatives.


Philosopher Jeremy Bentham writing on the rights of animals

In his famous Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham wrote:
"The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity [hairiness] of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum [whether there is a tail or not] are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk, but can they suffer?"
(ch. 17, in The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, ed. by J.H. Burns and H.L.A. Hart [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996], 282n).

Origin of the 'supremacy of Man' idea

A very long-standing, but rationally unjustifiable, western custom is the allotting of vastly more rights and privileges to Man than to other animals. The custom is supported in the Old Testament which states that God said to Man that he (Man) should "... have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth" (Genesis 2:28).

This concept was passed on from the Jews to the Christians and Muslims, thus pervading Western society; and, I suspect, even many of those of us who have managed to free our minds of the God-made-the-rules idea have not got rid of the belief in the supremacy of Man. We probably do not even realize that we still carry some of the baggage that came along with the religion we were brought up with.

Eastern cultures do not all seem to place Man on a higher plane than animals; the Jains in particular, but Hindus and Buddhists to a lesser extent as well. However, I'm certainly not advocating replacing Judeo-Christian unsubstantiated beliefs with Eastern unsubstantiated beliefs.

Is the 'supremacy of Man' idea justified?

Where is the justification for giving Man virtually all the rights and animals practically none? It can't come from numerical superiority, many other species are much more numerous; nor from adaptability: mosquitoes, cockroaches, rats and mice are probably more successful in establishing themselves widely across the Earth. The justification can't come from strength, many mammals and a few reptiles are stronger; and it can't come from survival skills; cockroaches and most reptiles are much better survivors.

In Man's favour, he is probably more intelligent than any other animals, although how do you measure the intelligence of a dolphin or whale? More importantly, Man is technological and has developed a complex culture; he has the power of life-and-death over all other animals (as individuals anyway, the smallpox virus is the only species that we have come close to entirely exterminating – intentionally).

But this is justifying our privileges by the 'might is right' argument; "we have the guns so we make the rules", I can't see any moral vindication here. (There is an interesting parallel here with the USA's approach to international relations.)

Considering our record as custodians of the earth we can't claim supremacy by right of moral excellence. I don't think that further explanation is needed on this point.

It has been argued that humans have souls while animals do not. Where is the evidence for this? I have argued that the concept of an immortal soul is meaningless anyway.

Some would say that we are the only animals that are self-aware and the only animals with culture. To this I would reply to the former with "prove it" and to the latter with "scientific research has demonstrated that chimpanzees have culture" (Whiten and Boesch, Scientific American, Jan. 2001).

Craig Stanford, in 'Significant Others: The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature' says, "Apes and humans are cut from the same evolutionary cloth; all that fundamentally distinguishes us is posture, we being upright walkers and the apes quadrupeds. Everything else, from the size and function of our brains to the other aspects of our shared anatomies, is a difference of degree and not of kind."

So it seems that the only valid justifications for claiming that Man is superior to other animals is the "might is right" argument and, perhaps, a superior intellect – as we, Mankind, defines intellect.

Cattle in a feedlot near Clare in the Mid North of South Australia
Cattle in a feedlot at Clare, S. Australia

Animal rights versus human rights

How can we justify holding the lives of our worst criminals 'sacred', while allowing many animals to be killed, used and miss-treated by many people at whim?

Below I have used cattle as an example of the modern trend toward the mistreatment of domestic animals. Chooks (chickens) confined for their whole lives to small cages, are treated more cruelly than are cattle in feed lots. Pigs, highly intelligent animals, when confined in intensive indoor piggeries are also subject to worse abuse.

Cattle feed lots

As a single example of our permitting selfish miss-treatment of animals, cattle are held in feed lots for months, standing around in shit in winter and in the hot sun of summer - so that we can eat steaks with marbled fat. It is unimaginable that any humane society would allow its citizens to be treated in this way.

Open range cattle near Clare, Mid North South Australia
Open range cattle grazing at Clare, S. Australia
I am an ex dairy farmer, so probably have more sympathy for cattle than most readers do. I've observed that their behaviours have a lot in common with ours: they find shelter from cold winds if they can, they find shade on hot days if they can, they like to sit in a patch of green grass under a shady tree, as I do. If they have any choice, they will not sit in mud or shit.

Compare the two photos. Does the boggy yard provide an acceptable environment for cattle that would prefer to be grazing on grassland?

Animal rights has been discussed at length by philosopher Peter Singer (in a book named Animal Rights? I'm not sure of the name) and by several philosophers in Ethics in Practice: An Anthology, edited by Hugh LaFollette; Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies.

Climate change and animal rights

As I write this section, in November 2013, the Abbott Australian Government is doing its best to dismantle the structures, modest though they were, that the previous Labor governments put in place to achieve some action to slow climate change.

I ask the reader to think, when next he or she sees a bird, what choices does that bird have in whether something is done to slow the climate change that will severely affect that bird's habitat? Is it to the bird's advantage that Australia continues making lots of money by mining and selling coal? Or would the bird's prospects be more advantaged by Australia reducing its greenhouse emissions?

And then think that the same question could be asked in relation to all of the creatures on this planet.

What right do we humans have to damage the habitats of all the animals on the planet simply for our own short-term advantage?

We can carry that question even further. Is it really to the advantage of most Australian's that we take no, or very little, action on climate change, or is it just to the short-term advantage of a few wealthy people and the politicians who pander to them?

Eating meat

If animals have similar rights to humans, can the eating of meat be justified?

Death is not necessarily cruel, it is quite possible to humanely kill an animal, nor is death to be feared. We cannot live without impacting the lives of other species, but we do have an obligation to minimise the negativity of that impact. If we take up a vegetarian life style we have to protect the plants that we grow from the animals that would eat them and we have to remove (kill) plants that would compete against them. Even if we adopt a fruitarian diet, we still have to clear away the pre-existing vegetation to make room for our fruit trees, kill weeds, and protect our crops from birds; for every additional fruitarian person who lives there is that much less space for wild plants and animals.

We can argue that animals being killed as a source of food is entirely natural, but this does not show that it is ethical. We have to look at the balance of good and bad that results from raising animals for food and slaughtering them.

So long as they are raised and killed humanely I do not see a problem; they live a 'happy' life (if the concept of happiness can be applied to animals), and do not suffer at the time of death.

The shooting and slaughtering of kangaroos for their meat and skins has been controversial. I have discussed this in another section of this page.

Modified 2018/05/23

Shade and shelter for livestock

An area in the Mid North of South Australia showing that trees do grow readily; the photo also shows some large areas without shelter for stock.
I live in the 'Mid North' of South Australia; an area with a hot summer. Temperatures in spring and autumn are often high enough to make animals and people seek shade, summer temperatures are so high that to not provide shade for domestic animals is cruel and inhumane; yet there are many farmers who do not take the trouble to grow at least a few trees in each paddock.

In winter, shelter from cold winds, especially cold winds with rain, is similarly needed by stock. Again it is often not provided, except for ewes with young lambs because the lambs are likely to die in such weather without shelter - the farmers maximise their profits. A small patch of trees and shrubs could make the animals' lives more pleasant in the worst of the wintry weather.

Sheep enjoying the shade beneath solar panels
Sheep under solar panels
Solar panels could be used wisely to work in with other land uses (see Solar Integration), like this, or they could be used with little or no concern for the local environment.
Image credit Vicki Phelps via ABC
Sheep sheltering in the shade of an operating wind turbine
Sheep sheltering
It is common to see sheep sheltering in the shade of wind turbines on a warm or hot day when there is little other shade available.
Clements Gap Wind Farm, Mid North South Australia, 2012/01/15
Growing appropriate native trees in the Mid North is not difficult, I have planted and successfully grown thousands on roadsides, on my own property, in Crystal Brook's Central Park and elsewhere. In areas with rainfalls around 400mm per year it seems best to plant in the autumn so that the seedlings can get established before the summer. They then will benefit from one or a few waterings during their first summer, but not so many that they rely of watering and fail to develop deep roots.

In areas with rainfalls around 600mm it seems best to plant in summer, so that the seedling can establish before the winter; they do not actively grow in the winter in the colder, wetter areas. Whether planted in summer or winter, they should be given at least 10 litres of water at the time of planting and the soil around them given a good covering of mulch to conserve water and stop weeds from establishing. With this treatment many will survive their critical first year. As in the case of autumn planting, a summer planted seedling will benefit from a watering or two to help them through the first summer, but this is not essential in the cooler areas.

Of course nearly all trees need to be protected from browsing by livestock when they are young. This is particularly the case with the more palatable genera like Callitris, Casuarina, and Allocasuarina. Eucalypts are less palatable, but their leaves – and even small twigs #8211; will still be eaten by hungry sheep. The only genera that I have come across that does not need protection is Araucaria and one of the spiny palms – both very slow growing.

Solar shade link

Jake Richardson wrote an article for CleanTechnica on 2015/02/20 titled 'Solar Power and Farm Crops Created at the Same Time'. The article discussed farmers in Japan installing solar panels and growing vegetables beneath them and also mentioned installing solar panels for shade in pastureland. The latter might be particularly suitable for Australia.

Sheep sheltering in the shade of a wind turbine on a hot day
Sheep in the shadow of a wind turbine
Wattle Point Wind Farm
Photo credit Linda Connor

Modified 2009/09/11

Mulesing sheep

This bit is based on my personal observation and is personal opinion

I worked on a family farm in my younger days. We had mostly dairy cows, but also ran a few sheep for wool and meat. We did not use mulesing.

Mulesing if a process that involves taking off an area of skin at the rear of a lamb. The aim is to stop wool growing in that area, and thereby stopping fouling of the sheep's backside with excrement. Sheep with dirty, continually damp, fouled backsides are much more susceptible to blowfly strike.

In blowfly strike a species of fly called the sheep blowfly lays its eggs in the fouled wool. The eggs hatch into maggots which then burrow into the sheep's skin.

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) are campaigning against the mulesing practice, particularly against the Australian sheep industry. See Save the Sheep. PETA's Save the Sheep page, I believe, exaggerates the negatives in sheep farming. I do not own any sheep, but I do have a small property on which another man runs sheep seasonally.

Mulesing does cause pain, however blowfly strike is worse for the sheep. Mulesing quite probably also makes sheep more susceptible to sun-light induced skin cancers.

There are two other methods of avoiding blowfly strike, both of which also avoid sun damage to bare skin:

Crutching is the process of shearing an area around a sheep's backside to stop the build-up of shit and consequent increased risk of fly strike. Why mules rather than crutch? Because it need be done only once, while crutching might need to be done twice a year.
This is a long-term solution. It would be quite possible to bread sheep with little wool around their backsides and thus little susceptibility to blowfly strike. Obviously, it would require a number of sheep generations to achieve it. The effort should be underway now. Sheep breeders are working toward this solution.
It is unfortunately true that if organisations such as PETA did not mount campaignes against the Australian sheep industry and the mulesing practice, little would be done to find humane ways of avoiding fly-strike. People can be selectively blind to the ethics of using practices that are convenient but cruel.

Shark netting on beaches

Queensland and New South Wales both use netting to protect people swimming on popular beaches from shark attack.

Conservation groups claim that these nets are responsible for many deaths of species that are harmless to people. Pressure from these groups has persuaded both Queensland and New South Wales Governments to order environmental impact studies of their shark netting programs. But both states insist that whatever the result of the studies, the nets will stay.

The shark is one of the top predators of the seas and there is evidence that depletion of top predators will greatly impact, in unpredictable ways, on species further down the food chain.

It seems that politicians believe that, at least from their selfish point of view, saving one human life is worth more than a great many animal deaths. Or perhaps more accurately, the politicians fear that if they were to remove the nets and one human life was lost to sharks, they would be blamed at the next election. It's probably a matter of votes, not justice.

People to contact: Nicole Beynon, Human Society International; David Butcher, World Wide Fund for Nature.

This section written

Pedigree dogs

The problems of the genetic diseases introduced into dog breeds by those who show and breed them has recently (September 2009) been aired in my country, Australia. My daughter is a veterinarian and has periodically commented on the same problem.

The practice of breeding dogs toward some weird 'ideal' shape and form has resulted in many of the long-suffering animals living with breathing difficulties, spinal problems, heart defects, neurological problems as well as chronic and sometimes severe pain.

When one takes control over the breeding of an animal one also accepts a moral responsibility for the welfare of that animal and its descendents. Dog breeders need to seriously consider the ethics of their practices. To bread an animal with intentional deformities is grotesque, if those deformities come with pain and misery then the practice is cruel and immoral.

I can only suggest that those of us who love dogs should react against the damage being done by the breeders. Perhaps we should start a breed of muts; dogs that have the greatest possible genetic diversity? We could keep ancestry records for our dogs, based on photographs (genetic testing would be too expensive to be a practicallity), and breed to maximise the gene mix in our mongrels?

This section written

Live cattle export

A cow that died after getting its head caught in a gate on a live export ship
Live exports
Photo credit ABC
"Faecal pad build up, long haul voyage"
Live exports 2
Photo from Dr Simpson's submission to ASEL
To keep cattle in hellish conditions like this, lying in excrement in the dark, is shameful in the extreme.
The sacking of a veterinarian after she reported on the horrific conditions that cattle were enduring on live export ships is only the latest event showing how unethical this industry is.

The vet concerned, Dr Lynn Simpson, happens to have gone to the same veterinary school, at the same time, as my daughter. My daughter developed a high opinion of Dr Simpson at the time.

Dr Simpson, who was employed by the Department of Agriculture (DoA) to report on conditions on live export ships, was sacked after someone else in the DoA released her report to the public.

Quoting from the Australian Broadcasting Commission's article (link above):

The report showed pictures of animals suffering and, in some cases, suffocating in overcrowded pens and drowning in faeces.

Dr Simpson detailed how cattle were forced to stand on hard floors for weeks on end, resulting in horrific leg injuries which often led to the animal being euthanased.

She also raised concerns that sick animals which would clearly be unable to survive the voyage were often loaded onto the ship because of poor inspection processes.
Government should be doing its best to support people like Dr Simpson who report the facts. To sack her for doing her job is as unconscionable as is the live export trade itself.


Dr Simpson has written several pieces on her experiences for Splash24/7, a shipping newsletter site. The first piece I came across was Live Animal Export Shipping: Modern Slave Trade. All her Splash24/7 pieces can be accessed here. As of early August 2016, all were written between June and August, 2016.

Acronyms used in the literature

AAV: AQIS Accredited Veterinarian;
ALEC: Australian Livestock Exporter's Council;
AQIS: Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service;
ASEL: Australian Standards for Export of Livestock;
RSPCA: Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals;


Dr Simpson wrote a submission for a review of ASEL, which was, but is no longer, available from the RSPCA Net site.

ABC 7:30, June 2016, Vet removed for exposing appaling conditions on live export ships.

Australian Livestock Exporter's Council's explanation of their relationship with Dr Simpson.

Sydney Morning Herald, 2016/09/10, written by Nikki Barrowclough
"Overnight, whistleblower vet Lynn Simpson became a pariah – and then she all but vanished.
When vet Lynn Simpson documented the appalling conditions faced by Australian animals on live-export ships, she lost her job and her health. But has anything really changed?"

2019: the abuse continues

An article dated 2019/04/04 on ABC online news was headlined "Australian cattle exported to Sri Lanka dying and malnourished, local farmers left suicidal" It was by Lorna Knowles of ABC Investigations and Siobhan Heanue, ABC's South Asia correspondent.

Quoting from the ABC article:

Hundreds of Australian and New Zealand cattle have died in a Federal Government-backed export deal with Sri Lanka, which local farmers say has left them broke, and in some cases, suicidal.

Farmers and animal rights groups, as well as Sri Lanka's own auditor-general, want the export project stopped because they say it is poorly planned and inhumane.
The ABC listed three key points:
  • About 500 Australian and New Zealand dairy cows have died after being shipped to Sri Lanka
  • The scheme was underwritten by an Australian Government loan of $100 million
  • The Sri Lankan auditor-general says the cows aren't thriving because of climatic conditions and disease, and the scheme should be shut down

This section added

CO2 stunning of animals before slaughter

What brought this subject to my attention was a program on the ABC 730 program showing what animal activist Chris Delforce filmed of the carbon dioxide stunning of pigs before slaughter. The video captured by Delforce strongly suggests that the pigs undergo severe discomfort or pain and panic during the stunning.



The work of Chris Delforce, that I would call heroic, shows that the factory farming and slaughter of domestic animals needs to be far more open to examination by anyone interested in animal rights.

Delforce, and people like him, who are willing to risk prosecution to expose animal cruelty should be applauded, not punished.

The pig industry plainly doesn't want the public to know about this.

Why carbon dioxide should be used in stunning when using nitrogen or argon, which are both readily available (nitrogen makes up 80% of our atmosphere while argon makes up 1%) and both would be much more humane is very difficult to understand. Argon, like CO2, is heavier than air, so to change from CO2 to argon should be very straight forward.

At the time of writing I am 77 years old and in declining health. I may well end my life at some time by breathing nitrogen. I wouldn't for a moment consider using CO2 instead, it would be very unpleasant. (Also see some thoughts on death and suicide as a rational decision.)

Is carbon dioxide stunning of pigs humane?, RSPCA

Carbon Dioxide Stunning of Pigs by Temple Grandin, Colorado State University, updated May 2022.

Chris Delforce's Facebook page

The nitrogen alternative, Exit International

This section added

Is it ethical to kill kangaroos for meat and skins?

How does killing kangaroos for meat and leather compare to killing other animals?

Several US states have moved to make it illegal to use kangaroo products on the grounds that the commercial hunting of kangaroos for products is "unconscionable".

Kangaroos on our land
This small mob of kangaroos seemed to spend most of their time on what was at the time our land in the Clare Valley. The property is fenced, but the kangaroos come and go over the fences as they want.
For more information on this see Australian Broadcasting Corporation; Australia's commercial kangaroo industry says 'false accusations' have led to US states trying to ban roo products; by By Maddelin McCosker and Lucy Cooper.

The question of whether we should kill any animals for our own advantage has been dealt with elsewhere on this page, including the section on eating meat.

Putting aside the question of whether humanity has any right to kill animals for our use it seems to me that the way we should look at this question is - how does it compare ethically and environmentally with raising and killing other animals? If we are going to kill and use any animals how does the kangaroo industry compare to the cattle, sheep, chicken and pig industries?

The factory farming of pigs, chickens and cattle is cruel. Kangaroos live free lives until they are shot and slaughtered.

Ruminant animals (including cattle, sheep and goats) are major producers of the strong greenhouse gas methane. Kangaroos are not ruminants.

Kangaroos living semi-wild
The kangaroos in this photo live in an unfenced park within about a kilometre of my home in Erskine Western Australia. Erskine is a suburb of Mandurah, a city of 100,000 people. It is common in the area for kangaroos to graze people's lawns, they often browse some of my plants. These kangaroos are not killed for human use.

Like fully wild kangaroos these are breading to the point where their numbers are becoming problematic.

Kangaroos in the wild in Australia have been able to increase in numbers due to pastoralists clearing trees to encourage more grass as fodder and providing water for their stock. Total numbers are uncertain but are around 50 million; that is about twice as many kangaroos as people in the country; these numbers are problematic for several reasons. There are probably more kangaroos in Australia now than there were before European settlement. Kangaroos will therefore be culled whether or not their bodies will be used for meat, leather, etcetera.

Surely, if we are to kill and use any animals, and if kangaroos are going to be culled in any case, it is better on both humane and environmental grounds to use kangaroos than cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and chickens.

If we grant that animals deserve rights just as much as humans do, what follows?

If humans and animals have rights then why should plants not? Since plants do not have a nervous system, they cannot have any form of consciousness, therefore cruelty to a plant is meaningless. However, we believe that we have a right to life; why should we have and not they? It seems to come back to the point about giving humans all the rights because we believe ourselves to be dominant; the 'might is right' argument again.

But it is not just a matter of comparing the right to life of a plant with that of an animal. If we choose to eat animals then those animals must eat plants; so the plants are the beginning of the food chain that ends in us. If the animals were cut out of the chain and we ate the plants direct, then fewer plants would be needed to support us; a smaller area of land would have to be dedicated to our support, our ecological footprint would be smaller than if we ate the animals that ate the plants.

Another factor to be considered is that grazing animals can live on poor land or low-rainfall land. Humans would not be able to grow plants to eat on such land, but they can eat the grazing animals, drink their milk, and wear their furs and wool.

Fruitarianism? Living by eating fruit alone? Fruit is 'designed' to be eaten. But it is impossible to grow fruit without depriving other plants of the space needed for 'your' production plants, and you must protect 'your' plants from predatory animals and insects. It is impossible to make a living without disrupting the lives of other species to some extent, so even being a fruitarian infringes upon the 'rights' of other plants or results in the death of animals.

However, if animals and Man logically have equal rights, and people are allowed to kill animals, how then do we justify stopping people from killing each other? Expediency?

Should we stop people from killing each other in all cases? (Death penalty?)


Related pages

External pages

New findings show Australian sheep face dangerous heat stress on export ships; The Conversation, 2020/05/05, Clive Phillips, Professor of Animal Welfare, Centre for Animal Welfare and Ethics, The University of Queensland

Aeon: A vision for agriculture; letting the herbivores go to the fodder rather than taking the fodder to the herbivores.

Live Animal Export: Canberra opens the door to exemptions for improving animal welfare; Splash, December 5th 2019. "The Australian government is backtracking on its commitment to improve conditions onboard livestock carriers. Dr Lynn Simpson is not impressed."

On this site




A list of my pages relating to ethics