Animal Rights Ending the Abusive Relationship Between Humans and Animals

Two horseback riders chasing and surrounding a cow from two sides.
Chilean horseback riders take part in a traditional rodeo competition, a centerpiece of the country's Independence Day celebrations, at an arena in Melipilla. Activist Mauricio Serrano Palma began demonstrating for animal rights because of these rodeos at the age of 15. | Photo (detail): Esteban Felix © picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Freedom – an inviolable human right – is increasingly regarded as indispensable in our treatment of animals, too. The Chilean activist Mauricio Serrano Palma is fighting for the right to freedom for all sentient beings.

Nowadays, recognizing non-human animals in legal judgements is becoming less and less of an exception worldwide. This is the legal route by which animal welfare activists fight for the freedom of animals kept in zoos and circuses: by granting them the status of a non-human legal person, such animals become legal subjects with their own rights. This was the case for instance with the female orangutan Sandra at Buenos Aires Zoo, the orangutan Tommy in New York and the elephant Kaavan in Pakistan.

Freedom, being an inviolable and inalienable human right, is gradually being recognized for non-human animals too. This is the goal to which the Chilean activist Mauricio Serrano Palma has devoted himself. He is the founder of the organization “Animal libre” and the campaign manager for Veganuary in Latin America, a non-profit organization that promotes a vegan diet.

For Serrano, it all started when he was 15. He was still living at that time in his home town of Rancagua, an hour from Santiago de Chile, when he suddenly realized that he wanted to protest against the traditional rodeo events that are deeply entwined with the Chilean identity and involve a cow being chased and whipped by two riders. Serrano began taking part in demonstrations and today is one of the best-known animal welfare activists in Latin America.

What do we mean when we talk about animal rights?

There is one thing that all sentient beings have in common: they are individuals that have positive or negative experiences and are conscious of themselves. This applies to humans and animals. Both, humans and animals, need to be treated with consideration. If we as humans harm another sentient being, we should be aware that this is morally reprehensible. This is the case if three basic rights are ignored or disregarded: the right to life, the right to freedom, and the right to physical integrity. And it is precisely these three basic rights, which are upheld and legally enshrined for us human animals, that are denied to non-human animals, with the exception of one small group of sentient animals. This is why we must talk in this context of “speciesism”, i.e. discrimination based on species. We should not be ensuring the rights only of certain animals, but the rights of all sentient beings.

How important is a legal basis for protecting these rights?

We can move towards laws that aim to respect these rights. However, this can only be guaranteed if one fundamental condition is met: humankind must recognize that animals are sentient beings and have basic rights. In Chile, for example, we have set in motion an amendment to the constitution in which it is stated that animals have the right to a life without abuse. But that is the result of many years of education and political pressure.

To what extent is the debate about animal rights connected to the idea of freedom for animals?

On a symbolic level, freedom for animals means breaking with their current status, a status that defines them merely as things, as “moveable assets”. This legal situation allows them to be condemned for their entire lives to complete exploitation, to continuous use and abuse. When we talk about freedom, we mean that the abusive relationship between human animals and non-human animals should end. Once we have dissolved this relationship, we can think about the practical aspects of freedom in specific individual situations. We can then consider the animals that are locked up in zoos and circuses, or on poultry farms, as is the case with so-called “laying hens”. Such animals are deprived of their freedom of movement, in some cases to the extent that they cannot even spread their wings and have no contact with other members of their own species. A paradigm shift is therefore needed to achieve the goal of liberating animals; this will then translate into highly pragmatic aspects if we grant animals the freedom that their species deserves.

Why do we humans take it for granted that we can deprive animals of their freedom even though we value freedom as one of the most fundamental rights of humans?

The main reason – though there may well be many other reasons, too – is that non-human animals are useful for us. Limiting the mobility and natural development of animals allows us to obtain products from them with which to feed or clothe ourselves, or to pursue activities that entertain us or make us mobile. Because of this utilitarianism, humans exploit other animals that they see as inferior in order to satisfy their own needs, either disregarding the wellbeing of the animals in question or giving them just the minimal consideration in order to ensure that they continue to serve their purpose. If an animal breaks a leg or its fur does not show the desired characteristics, humans do not attempt to help the animal or provide it with the necessary medical care, unless the costs of “repairing” the animal – as if it were an object – would be lower than the profit that the animal is expected to generate.

What does our treatment of animals – the way we subordinate them, imprison them and exploit them for our own purposes – say about us as humans?

We are currently undergoing an important process of transformation. I do not wish to accuse anyone of anything, nor do I wish to reproach myself, as I was also a part of the system. In many cases it is not a question of bad intentions; certain customs are simply maintained because of tradition and we do not question them. But I am optimistic when I look ahead to the future, which is why I do what I do. The time will come when we do question all the centuries during which we interacted in such a way with other animals. Maybe I will not experience it myself, and maybe my children won’t either, but perhaps my grandchildren will live to see a time when our exploitation of animals is remembered as yet another disaster in which we humans played the main role.

Over the past ten years countless campaigns have been launched to liberate imprisoned animals: a polar bear in a shopping centre in China, a killer whale that spent five decades locked up in a mini aquarium, or gorillas that live cooped up in confined spaces in zoos. What has happened to prompt people to reject these conditions that used to be seen as so normal?

Various non-profit organisations have helped us look at certain activities with different eyes by asking us whether we can really enjoy ourselves and relax in aquariums, zoos and circuses if we think about how the animals are locked up there. When we see the brutal treatment of or physical effects on animals of living such imprisoned lives, we stop regarding this form of entertainment as normal. Zoo animals that display repetitive and stereotypical behaviours are one example. If people are provided with this information, they can take better decisions.

How do you imagine our relationship with animals once they are free?

As far as animals are concerned that currently live on farms or close to humans, the relationship would be similar to that we have with pets such as dogs and cats. We would do whatever was necessary to ensure their wellbeing. However, it would not be the case, as many people claim, that there would then be millions of animals and we would be overrun by cows or hens. On the contrary, there would be far fewer of these animals. But they would live together with humans or in places that are appropriate for them, such as in protected areas where they would enjoy safety and care.

This text was originally published in Humboldt.