Consent and Animal Welfare
Christopher Columbus High School sparked a controversy last Friday when they decided to bring a tiger, a lemur, macaws, and a fennec fox to their prom. As videos of the prom went viral, people began to debate the ethics of bringing live animals into such stressful situations for entertainment purposes. As an article featured by the New York Times notes, animal entertainers often look at stress levels to gauge the suitability of a particular performance of an animal; they look for things like loud noises and flashing lights (Mele 2018). Consequently, while many people immediately recognized the problem of bringing wild animals to a rowdy environment such as a high school prom, the issue should stir a larger debate on the ethics of how we commonly use animals. Should we really only be worried about causing undue harm to an animal? Given our increased understanding of the intelligence and rights of animals, our interactions with animals should really be based upon a deeper relationship of respect for that animal’s interests and dignity.
In “All Animals Are Equal,” Peter Singer makes the case that animal rights should not be built upon the notion of equality, but of equal consideration. He writes:
“The extension of the basic principle of equality from one group to another does not imply that we must treat both groups in exactly the same way, or grant exactly the same rights to both groups. Whether we should do so will depend on the nature of the members of the two groups. The basic principle of equality, I shall argue, is equality of consideration; and equal consideration for different beings may lead to different treatment and different rights” (Singer 1974, 2)
In other words, the principle of equality reasons that living beings have rights regardless of how advanced or developed they seem. This idea of rights has serious implications, meaning that even what we consider relatively simple creatures should be respected and their interests should be given merit. By accepting that animals should be given equal consideration, we recognize that they deserve higher standards of treatment.
So where does this leave us in terms of how we can and should properly use animals? It seems that if we take the notion of animal rights seriously, we should be more careful in our treatment of animals. In fact, we probably shouldn’t be using animals at all, but rather co-existing with them. What we ask for and expect of animals should be in line with the considerations that we would give to a toddler or a young child. While we would not expect such a young individual to make most of their decisions by themselves, we still honor the fact that the child has rights and cannot be coerced into a path that is obviously bad for them. For example, a housepet will not be able to make good, informed decisions about going to the vet, but such trips are obviously in the pet’s best interest, so the pet could be coerced into going. Otherwise, the criteria for what humans can expect of animals should be less in line with what those animals can withstand and should give them that the same respect that we would give ourselves if we were placed in a similar vulnerable position.
Applying these criteria to the case of the Miami high school makes it clear that the tiger and other live wild animals should never have been used for entertainment purposes. Even if the tiger tolerated being confined in a small cage, it is doubtful that he would have consented to such behavior of his own free will, as he was placed in an extremely stressful situation that is far different from the normal living conditions of a large predator. The fact that we still come across such clear abuses of an animal’s rights shows that we as a society should move away from our traditional notions that animals are essentially robots created to serve our wills. We need to learn to respect them and start looking after their best interests, beyond just how they can best entertain and help us.
- Mele, Christopher. “Tiger at Miami Prom Draws Rebukes and an Apology.” New York Times, 14 May 2018.
- Regan, Tom and Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal,” Animal Rights and Human Obligations (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1989), p. 148- 162.