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“Welfare” “Rights” and the forgotten “Liberation” in the Animal Advocacy Movement


Have you ever wondered what the terms ‘animal rights’, ‘animal liberation’ and ‘animal welfare’ mean exactly? Often these terms are used interchangeably when referring to the ‘animal advocacy movement’ (AAM). The point of this article is to clarify what these terms might mean, to examine liberation theory further and to enable advocates to reflect and consider their own positioning when conducting advocacy. After all, these theoretical positions inform practice directly influencing the type of advocacy conducted for social justice as a whole. 

The animal welfare position acknowledges that animals have interests and should be protected. However, their central goal is to mainly reduce the suffering and any death or harm inflicted on animals must be conducted “humanely”. This position seeks to reform how animals are exploited rather than eradicate the exploitation. In other words, the welfare position still allows animals to be used for human pleasure/need thus animals are still inherently viewed and treated as ‘commodities’.

Another component is the animal rights position which is abolitionist in its expectations and demands an end to all animal exploitation inherently rejecting the utilitarian premises of the welfare positioning. The rights argument (influenced by Tom Regan and Peter Singer) maintains that animals have intrinsic value (independent from human needs) and display sentience, this means in part, they have a desire to remain alive and have a right to remain alive and not be exploited. This movement seeks not to reform how animals are exploited, but to abolish the exploitation. In terms of advocacy, the animal rights and welfare components generally promote strictly legal forms of change through education and legislation (Best, 2006) despite the theoretical differences in positioning.

However, the liberation component has differences to the rights component (generally in terms of advocacy approaches) and contrasts to the welfare component. The ‘animal liberation movement’ (ALM) seeks total liberation and views the oppression of humans, animals and earth as interlinking issues. The ALM is not a linear concept with linear solutions but is connected to a wider system with a holistic outlook. Everything should be understood in terms of its relationship and interaction with everything else and should be understood as manifestations as a wider system (Ife & Tesoriero, 2006). So our human and nonhuman exploitation problems that are seen as ‘separate’ issues are instead related to the larger system of exploitation such as capitalism and patriarchy for example.

Liberation theory links in with the feminist concept of intersectionality. Conceptualisations of oppression such as racism, speciesism and sexism for example, do not act independently of one another; instead they interlink creating an intersection of various forms of discrimination. So liberation theory rejects political and economic capitalism and the usual single issue focus of animal rights and welfare (Best, 2006). The liberation component is inclusive of all sentient beings, including humans in which ‘animal liberation’ cannot be developed apart from ‘human liberation’ and vice versa (Best & Nocella, 2006). Thus human, animal and earth liberation are all connected and are not separate entities or issues and should be thought of and fought as one.

Moreover, generally the liberation positioning is grounded in rights philosophy but the advocacy approaches defer greatly. For example, the animal liberation position rejects the notion that justice can be achieved through the current state dynamics which as (Best, 2006) argues is corrupt and dominated by corporate interests. Therefore this approach is most radical in that it encourages the most direct forms of action generally involving breaking the law to achieve justice.

Direct forms of action, in particular, property damage, is most controversial because destruction of property is generally deemed ‘violent’. However, some argue that property damage is nonviolent and important symbolically because it targets private property ownership as a cause of animal subjugation as animals themselves are also classified as property (Socha, 2011). Society inherently views property as more valuable than life itself and many people become caught up in this societal illusion. Economic sabotage brings this societal priority, that is, the value of property into light. Other forms of direct action make space for the voices of nonhuman animals to be heard, for example, by obtaining footage of their suffering in vivisection laboratories, factory farms, and other places of cruelty, and making it widely available to the public (Colling, 2010).

Through direct action the ALM seeks to remove the existing economic, political and social relations to create new ones. In other words, this positioning advocates a form of revolution over a reformist positioning. This argument common in social movement literature has polarized activists. For example, the welfare and rights tradition generally assumes that institutions remain central to the system and that you can modify and control corporations ‘making them’ more socially just (Alperovitz, 2011). Thus solutions are sought within the social, economic and political order without challenging this oppressive social order.

Whereas, the revolutionary position (the radical ALM) assumes that change can come about if corporate institutions are eliminated. Therefore, the ALM encourages intervention based action to counteract the very institutions and systems perpetuating suffering of human and nonhuman animals. The liberation position argues that regulating industry through welfare reform is limited as the law and government in particular, are the very corrupt components protecting these industries.

Certainly there are clearly various components and a lack of unification in the AAM. Defining these terms is of great importance to some in the AAM. The theory behind these terms can be conflated to mean the same thing, may frequently overlap, can interpreted as a contradiction, or seen to exist on a continuum. However, mostly these are theoretical differences and strategic methods often creating real tensions and divides in the movement. These positions are important to highlight because they directly influence the type of advocacy conducted and the varied differences which exist both in theory and practice.


Lara Drew is currently doing a PhD in education on animal rights and tutoring at the University of Canberra. She is an animal rights activist and volunteers for Animal Liberation ACT.


Alperovitz, G. (2011). Neither Revolution Nor Reform. Dissent Fall, 59-64.

Best, S. (2006) Rethinking Revolution. Animal Liberation, Human Liberation, and the Future of the Left. International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, 2,(3), 1-31.

Best. S & Nocella, A. (2006). Igniting a Revolution. Voices In Defense of The Earth. Oakland: AK Press.

Colling, S. (2010). An Interview with Anarcha-Transnational Feminist Sarat Colling. Journal for Critical Animal Studies, VIII (3), 61-65.

Ife, J. & Tesoriero, I. (2006). Community Based Alternatives in an Age of Globalization: Community Development. NSW: Pearson. 

Socha, K. (2011). Women, Destruction, and the Avant-Garde: A Paradigm for Animal Liberation. New York: Rodopi.

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