“All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others”: Animal Protection and Animal Welfare Legislation Compared


Animals are treated in an ambivalent way. On the one hand humans cuddle, love and pamper the animals they keep. On the other hand many animals are being a victim of some kind of abuse. Not all animals are equally protected against animal cruelty. It differs per country and it depends on the status of different kinds of animals. Dogs which are used in research or for food are not equally protected from inhumane treatment as companion dogs are. The way how animals are treated is also dependent on cultural norms and beliefs.

Animals are treated in an ambivalent way.  People have a different attitude towards animals depending on the status and the way in which animals are used. On the one hand humans cuddle, love and pamper the animals they keep. On the other hand animals are used as a means to an end (food, fur, medicines, or for research projects, entertainment, pack animals etc.).  In the media we can find many funny and entertaining pictures and videos about animals. Dogs are being trimmed and dressed up, parrots and other intelligent animals are doing amazing tricks and we must not forget about the heartwarming images of interspecies friendships. But there are also the gruesome and heartbreaking images of unscrupulous abuse of animals. This shows how many animals are being a victim of some kind of abuse.

Not all animals are equally protected against animal cruelty. It differs per country and it depends on the status of different kinds of animals. Dogs which are used in research or for food are not equally protected from inhumane treatment as companion dogs are. The way how animals are treated is also dependent on cultural norms and beliefs. In India, cows are considered holy animals whereas in the West cows are considered primarily as providers of meat, dairy and leather products. In the West rabbits are kept as pets but at the same time rabbits are bred for their fur. In Japan, whaling and whale eating is considered as a 'distinct and unique' part of their culture. In some cultures eating dog and cat meat is common practice. However, this tradition is facing serious criticism worldwide. Professor Chang Jiwen of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences is against the eating of cat and dog meat. "Cats and dogs are loyal friends to humans [...] A ban on eating them would show China has reached a new level of civilization."

During the course of history the public opinion grew that, like humans, animals are sentient beings, and that animals can experience emotions, pain and suffering. With the changing perception of animals as conscious beings came an increased concern for animal welfare. This growing belief that consideration should be given to the suffering and well-being of animals has led to the development of animal welfare standards which include the requirements for slaughtering animals for food, the way in which animals should be cared for when used in scientific research, how wild species are being protected and how animals which are cared for by humans are kept (pets, animals in zoos,in farms,in circuses, etc.). 

The first country in the world that implemented laws to protect animals is the United Kingdom. In 1822 it implemented the Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle. There are several international legal sources which are additionally concerned with animal welfare. For example treaties, conventions and resolutions concerned with wildlife protection which are concerned with a more humane treatment of animals (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling and the 1958 UN Conference on the Law of the Sea to mention a few).  

Also international legal instruments have been developed to deal with animal welfare and animal protection on a global level. For example, the non-binding  proposal of the Universal Declaration of Animal Welfare (UDAW) by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) in 2000. This text consists of a set of certain basic principles related to animal welfare. Adoption of this proposal is being supported  by around 40 governments. The World Organization for Animal Health also deals with animal welfare. By some this inter-governmental institution is considered as an appropriate "global forum for the elaboration and harmonisation of appropriate welfare standards" .

Nowadays almost every country in the world has implemented certain laws that deal with animal abuse. But the existence and enforcement of animal protection laws differs greatly worldwide. For example, in East Asia (except Japan), Africa and most former Soviet countries, the animal welfare standards, protection laws and enforcement are considered as the lowest in the world. In China there currently is no legislation which protects animals against abuse.  However, the situation in China is improving. In the last decade, animal welfare laws have been drafted and there is a growing public opinion which supports better animal welfare standards and legislation.  

In the US three federal statutes deal with animal welfare: the Humane Slaughter Act 7 USC 1901 - 1907, the Twenty Eight Hour Law of 1877 (United States Code Annotated. Title 49. Transportation. Subtitle X. Miscellaneous. Chapter 805. Miscellaneous) and the Animal welfare act  (AWA) 7 USC 2131 - 2159.

These three Federal statutes do not regulate the treatment of animals reared for food while on the farm, nor do they regulate treatment of companion animals. Additionally, there is no federal anti-cruelty statute in the United States. Anti-cruelty legislation is determined by states; the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is not a national anti-cruelty law. The AWA does not deal with veterinary care of animals outside licensed institutions, the use of animals in education, the slaughter of animals (see federal Humane Slaughter Act), hunting and fishing , animals used for agriculture production,the treatment of pet animals by owners or in pet stores and injuries by animals or inflicted upon animals. The AWA applies to some animals used in or bred for research, exhibitions and zoos, animal fights and auctions.

The definition of animals is limited under the US Animal Welfare Act. It mainly concerns warm blooded animals such as non-human primates, dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and rats. In the US the abuse of pet animals is regulated by state anti-cruelty statutes. Agriculture production animals also fall under  state anti-cruelty statutes.  In the US animals are regarded as property. The law in the US could be considered antropocentric. As a result, animal welfare regulations and the enforcement of the law are minimal. However, in the United States of America  companion animals are recognized as beings with a moral status greater than that of property.

The domestic law of EU member states must meet the minimum requirements of the animal welfare laws that have been adopted by the EU. However, they can go above and beyond EU animal protection legislation. Europe has the highest level of legislative standards regarding animal welfare. In the German and Swiss Constitution for example, provisions can be found which recognise that animals are sentient beings and that they therefore deserve legal protection. But also the Brazilian and Indian Constitution contain a duty of care provision which states that animal life should be protected.  In Europe animals are considered to have inherent value. According to Article 13 of Title II of the Treaty  on the Functioning of the EU, animals are recognised as sentient beings:

In formulating and implementing the Union's agriculture, fisheries, transport, internal market, research and technological development and space policies, the Union and the Member States shall, since animals are sentient beings, pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals, while respecting the legislative or administrative provisions and customs of the Member States relating in particular to religious rites, cultural traditions and regional heritage.

According to Council Directive 98/58/EC on the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, there are general rules for the protection of animals of all species kept for the production of food, wool, skin or fur or for other farming purposes, including fish, reptiles or amphibians. These rules are based on the European Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes. These rules reflect the so-called 'Five Freedoms':

Freedom from hunger and thirst
Freedom from discomfort
Freedom from pain, injury and disease
Freedom to express normal behaviour
Freedom from fear and distress

The legal regime of the EU regarding animal welfare also consists of several EU directives and regulations concerned with animal protection.  The EU has created separate regulations for companion animals, farm animals and research animals. In order to  spare the animals which are to be slaughtered suffering and pain, and in order to enhance the quality of the meat, the European Convention for the Protection of Animals for Slaughter was implemented in 1982. 

One can conclude that currently animal welfare legislation is part of the universal public conscience. It could be considered a universal value which is in some form part of the legal system of almost every nation. It is a part of almost all cultures and belief systems. Globalization and harmonization of norms and values regarding animal welfare have led to a greater development of animal protection legislation worldwide, both on the international and national level. Currently, animal welfare legislation is most often based on an antropocentric perspective. However, more and more attention is being paid to the desire to safeguard the wellbeing of the animal and to treat it more humanely, and to prevent unneccesary suffering and by forbidding cruelty.