Animal rights – do they exist?

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be measured by the way its animals are treated — Mahatma Gandhi.



We turn to this age old philosophical question that has dogged human kind for generations and no pun is intended.
Do animals have rights? Human beings have clearly defined rights, but there is no commonality of thought regarding the rights of animals. Non-human animals do not have the capacity to formulate moral judgment in the way humans do.
Apart from some primates that humans share a common ancestor with other animals do not have the same natural capacity for moral judgment meaning they do not know right from wrong. In that one distinct way animals are different from human beings, therefore, the issue of whether they can have rights or not becomes an issue. For further reading the BBC webpage gives a detailed and simplified analysis of this complex issue.

This discussion will appeal to animal lovers and even those who do not necessarily love animals, but keep them anyway for different purposes. Animal keepers of pets and livestock should be cognisant of the basic guiding principles and philosophies that pertain to animals. The recognition of animal rights remains one of the most debated topics in international legal circles. Zimbabwean jurisprudence regarding the rights of animals has not been sufficiently developed, but there is advanced legislation that compels the humane treatment of animals and good animal welfare.

The Law

The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act (Chapter 19:09) is an act to consolidate and amend the law relating to the prevention of cruelty to animals. An animal means any kind of domestic vertebrate animal. Without getting too complicated it means the commonly known animals such as mammals, fish, birds and reptiles. The Act applies to both domesticated animals such as pets and livestock and wild animals that have been taken into captivity. Whenever people take custody of an animal they are automatically subject to this law.

Cruelty to animals

Cruelty against animals is very common in this country as much as anywhere. Abandoned, ill-treated and neglected animals are a cause for concern globally. What is not commonly known is that ill-treating animals is a criminal offence. Section 3 stipulates that any person who beats, kicks, ill-treats, overdrives, overloads, or tortures any animal or causes any animal to be so treated shall be guilty of a criminal offence. People routinely beat and kick their pets to punish or train them or just for fun. Dogs are the most abused animals of all animals. Killing animals indiscriminately and violently is also a rife practice. The drowning of unwanted cats in rivers is a widely accepted practice. Other criminal acts include driving or using animals that are unwell or have a disease or if they have been injured or are simply not fit enough for the purpose they are tasked with. It is illegal and constitutes immense cruelty against animals to for example yoke a sick ox or donkey for ploughing or for other draught power. When it is evident that a horse, ox, mule or donkey is not physically well or physically strong enough for the task it is illegal to use it anyway for its physical strength. Neglecting and abandoning animals or causing them to be so neglected and abandoned are criminal offences. Other offences will be discussed in detail.
For now it is instructive to re-iterate that ill-treating animals in any manner is illegal. It does not matter whether one regards an animal as their exclusive private property or even whether or not animals have rights. The law sufficiently dictates that there be no cruelty of whatever form against animals. Conviction for an act of cruelty against animals attracts a fine and/or imprisonment of up to six months. Witnesses to any form of cruelty against animals may report any such acts to the police.

Animal Rights: The Argument in a nutshell

As mentioned there is serious divergence of opinion regarding the rights of animals. The question is not any easy one to answer because the different philosophies compete vigorously. Animal rights activists present an intriguing radical view while the more conservative traditional view remains dominant. Animal rights activists champion a world where animal rights are fully recognised and properly defined. This radical perspective regards animals as having the same rights as all living creatures because they are capable of feeling pleasure and pain. Animals, therefore, have the right to be treated with respect and dignity in regard to their physical, psychological and emotional wellbeing. The more radical activists believe animal rights should be on the same level as human rights which is opposed by the traditional view. If basic human rights are transferable to animals it would mean animals could not be killed because they would have a right to life. This would automatically outlaw breeding animals for any purpose. Inevitably this would upset the natural and social balance and bring a revolutionary change to human diets and human and commercial activities centred on animals and animal rearing. Animals would no longer be used in experiments or for entertainment. Animal rights activists often employ very violent tactics such as bombing test laboratories to disrupt the use of animals for research. Breeding animals would be outlawed because the ultimate and inevitable purposes of breeding animals is to kill them for food and other beneficial functions. Hunting animals would be illegal as would be placing them in captivity in zoos and animal parks because this would be a breach of their right to liberty. Breeding animals would only be allowed if it was to the benefit of the animals themselves. Needless to say using animals for hard labour would be outlawed.

The list is endless, but it shows that placing animal rights on the same footing as human rights is an impractical and ridiculous concept. It only upsets the natural and social balance. It should be enough to treat animals humanely and refrain from any form of cruelty against them. The Zimbabwean Constitution does not recognise the rights of animals but only for natural and juristic persons. We will look at specific forms of cruelty against animals and continue the debate.


  1. The ‘natural and social balance’ is what though? And according to who – the paternalists, the white supremacists, the sexists, the leaders of the old minority governments, or of the southern states and slave traders, or the Nazis? These were people who set the ‘social balance’ of their era.

    There is a social balance currently installed in Palestine/Israel, Saudi Arabia and its balancing of the place of women in society; a neo-liberal balance dictates the value of human life in relation to the the market economy health in South Africa and other places.

    There is a wide range of plant food available to most humans. Is the killing of a non-human just to satisfy our desire for the taste for animal flesh not just cruel? With billions of animals killed every year in the animal agriculture industry, what sort of ‘balance’ should we settle for? Not only in terms of terrible cruelty, but the mis-balance that this industry is also causing to the environment; every mouthful of meat a person takes also contributes to climate change.

    With billions of non-animals being processed yearly to satisfy our taste and the market’s profit, how can we confine and slaughter non-humans humanely? So when the writer states that ‘animals, therefore, have the right to be treated with respect and dignity in regard to their physical, psychological and emotional well-being,’ does this mean all animals except for the 50-something billion animals that we eat?

    The writer of this article reports that animal rights activists OFTEN bomb certain facilities. How often? How many people have been killed by these alleged bombs in the last ten years that you have heard about?

    To get a definition of ‘often’ don’t google ‘animal rights activists and bombs’. Rather do it to get an idea of what Post-Truth journalism looks like. Or just read this article critically again.

  2. Anti-carnivory radicals, probably to a person, have never had to worry about where they’d find their next meal, let alone been truly hungry. From the comfort of their First World lives they spout rhetoric, simultaneously sanctimonious and offensive, equating society’s acceptance of consuming animals for food with past social tolerance of slavery and Fascism. By so doing they completely miss the point of Ms. Majome’s essay, and belie the essence of their radical belief system. Slavery and Fascism and sexism and ethnic cleansing are all crimes of humans against humans. Those crimes are abhorrent precisely because the victims are humans, and the only way they can be equated with killing non-human animals for consumption is by believing the lives of non-human animals are equal to the lives of humans. Where shall we draw the line? Are roaches’ lives equal to humans’? Why limit our concern to vertebrates? Don’t snails and squids and lobsters also die when we put them in a pot of boiling water?

    Evolutionary biology teaches us that without a transition to carnivory by our hominid ancestors the human brain could not have developed its current glorious capacity to ponder such questions. We have ‘canine’ teeth for a reason. It’s profoundly ironic that carnivory is a big reason why anti-carnivory radicals are capable of making their argument at all. The second irony is that non-human animals themselves don’t share the belief that the lives of all species are equal. Wolves don’t question whether it’s OK to kill an elk.

    Meat is an important source of human nutrition. Vegans can survive without consuming any animal products, but they generally need to take supplements, especially to provide certain nutrients such as vitamin B12 and tryptophan that are plentiful in meat. People are and should be free to eat as best suits them, taking into account their own personal moral values. But it’s presumptuous and irresponsible to chastise others for choosing to consume foods that provide nutrition essential for good health or that simply taste good. Indeed, foods taste good to us precisely because they provide important nutrition.

    The lives of non-human animals are not equal to the lives of humans. For nearly a billion years living organisms on earth have consumed other living organisms for food. Humans’ magnificent brains confer upon us the unique capacity for self consciousness and empathy, so compel us not to be cruel either to humans or non-human animals. But they need not compel us to make choices that are fundamentally antithetical to our survival as a species.

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