What is the proper Christian view toward "animal rights?" That depends on how one defines the term. Christians—like all people—certainly have the duty to treat animals humanely and with proper standards of care. But that is properly called animal welfare, not animal rights.
So what's the difference between animal welfare and animal rights? Animal welfare acknowledges that humans have unique dignity and value. In direct contrast, animal rights denigrates human exceptionalism as "speciesist," that is, discrimination against animals.
Animal welfare acknowledges that we may benefit from animal husbandry, but that in so doing, we have the important duty to treat animals humanely and never abuse them or cause them gratuitous suffering. Animal rights believers claim that it is immoral to domesticate animals for any purpose, meaning we should not eat meat, wear leather, conduct animal research, and for some, even own dogs. In other words, the ultimate goals of animal welfare and animal rights are in direct conflict: The former seeks to improve our use of animals, the latter, to end it altogether.
In this sense, animal rights is actually a subversive ideology—for some, a quasi religion—that believes humans and animals have equivalent moral value. In 1989, Ingrid Newkirk, the head of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) stated the matter very clearly and succinctly in Vogue: "Animal Liberationists do not separate out the human animal, so there is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They are all mammals."
If being human is irrelevant to moral value, as animal rightists contend, upon what attributes do rightists believe that moral value should be assigned? The movement is not monolithic in this regard. Some, like Rutgers law professor Gary Francione, contend that "sentience" brings with it a "right" not to be property. Others, like Peter Singer—not a pure animal rightist—assert that moral value should be based on an individual possessing sufficient cognitive capacities to be considered a "person," a status enjoyed by some animals in his view, but not by some people. Perhaps the most common approach to endowing equivalent moral value between humans and animals is the capacity to suffer.
Regardless of the approach, to the animal rights true believer, what is done to an animal should be judged as if the same action were done to a human being. Hence, animal rightists believe cattle ranching to be as odious as slavery and research on lab rats an equivalent evil to Mengele's experiments in the camps.
PETA explicitly pitched that nihilistic message for two years in its infamous Holocaust on Your Plate Campaign that juxtaposed historic photographs of the Shoah next to depictions of animals, for example deceased, emaciated inmates presented adjacent to a photo of dead pigs. The text stated in part:
Like the Jews murdered in concentration camps, animals are terrorized when they are housed in huge filthy warehouses and rounded up for shipment to slaughter. The leather sofa and handbag are the moral equivalent of the lampshades made from the skins of people killed in the death camps.
Such odious comparisons between animal husbandry and the worst of human evils isn't viewed as hyperbole or metaphor by animal rights true believers. Indeed, the belief that using animals is akin to the Holocaust has led some activists to engage in terrorism against medical researchers, food producers, mink farmers, and others, who have been subjected to death threats, vandalism, bombings, and identity theft, among other crimes. In the United Kingdom, animal activists even robbed the grave of a farm family's grandmother to coerce it out of raising guinea pigs for use in research.
Hyper emotional advocacy by animal rights campaigners also seeks to mask the tremendous benefit we receive from the proper and humane use of animals. Decades of attacks, for example, have confused millions of Americans about the importance of animal research. But this is an undeniable fact: If you have received any of the many sophisticated medical treatments developed in the last 50 years, you directly benefited from experiments performed on animals, without which your treatments could never have been developed.
The movement's explicit anti humanism that is at the core of animal rights advocacy—again, as distinguished from animal welfare—is perhaps its greatest threat to Judeo/Christian culture. Remember, animal rights ideology denies the unique dignity of human life—an essential value of Christianity. One would think that such misanthrope would protect believers from falling prey to animal rights propaganda. Alarmingly, in promoting my new book, A Rat is a Pig is a Dog is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement, I have been told by self described Christians that the sanctity of life ethic includes animals as well as people, and that the practice of true Christianity requires vegetarianism.
But this has no Biblical basis. After Christ's birth, Joseph and Mary sacrificed a dove as required by Jewish law. Lamb was undoubtedly served at the Last Supper—it was, after all, the Passover feast.—and the risen Christ served and ate fish to his disciples after His resurrection. During His earthly ministry, Jesus never complained about animal sacrifice and rode triumphantly into Jerusalem on a colt—a type of instrumental use of animals viewed as wholly immoral by animal rights activists. In his "take no thought of what ye shall eat" discourse, he assured the crowds that while God is aware of the fall of each sparrow, every hair on their heads was counted, and moreover, that we are worth much more than many sparrows. One could go on and on.
Of course, Christian thought and human empathy requires Christians to treat animals compassionately. Unfortunately, many believers' love for animals has enticed them into accepting animal rights. But Christ didn't die for tigers, elephants, or squirrels. He died for human beings.
If this crucial distinction is ever lost, the spine of Judeo/Christian moral philosophy and Christian faith will be broken with incalculable consequences. After all, if we come to think of ourselves as just another animal in the forest, that is how we will act.