Issue Home Mag Home

Animal Rights and Latin America’s Political Agenda

Andrea Padilla Villarraga
Translation from Spanish by Kevin G. McDonald



Latin America has managed to rid itself of much of the shameful burden bequeathed by a history of conquest, colonization, dictatorship, and barbarity. In terms of human, social and environmental rights, countries in the region still have serious deficiencies, but the nonconformity of the people and the influence of democracies have enabled them to construct minimally decent moral systems. These systems do not necessarily occur in all cases and contexts with the urgency and determination that progressive ideas of justice would prescribe, but rather at a pace that has allowed for the elucidation of new moral frontiers for each time period. Furthermore, these transformations have marked the identity of the region with the emancipating spirit of the struggle against institutionalized powers and systems of norms and values considered violent and unjust.
Today in Latin America, one of the social movements that proposes, in my opinion, the most profound and radical of moral and cultural revolutions of our time is gaining strength, and is only superseded only by legal movements against inequality among human beings. This movement is the revolution for the rights of non-human animals, which questions human sovereignty over all other living sentient beings as well as the right of humans to exploit these beings through violence and arguments that, at times, have also served to exclude, subjugate, and even kill other human groups.


Foto. José Alberto Zendejas

Although it is difficult to date the emergence of the claim for fair treatment of animals, the birth of this defense is evident in the decade of the seventies, when green political thought emerge on to the public scene and made room for new subjects and social movements. This emerging claim that only recently influenced political and legal debates in Latin America suggests an ideological, social, and cultural change in the way people in the region relate to animals and rule their treatment and legal status in society.
This budding movement exposes and highlights the forms of exploitation and suffering that animals are subjected to in industrial and daily practices. It also leads to strategies such as disseminating alternatives to various forms of consumption, formulating policy proposals, generating media content, impacting civic culture, producing science, and research, and confronting human customs and traditions with the weight of ethics, among other strategies.
At the ethical and political level, the movement has built an interdisciplinary corpus of knowledge fueled by applied ethics and research on animal behavior and cognitive science, which has allowed for a nuanced approach to answering the increasingly relevant question: What (or who) is an animal? Among these answers, sentience, that is to say the ability of animals to experience pleasure, pain, suffering and emotions whose intensity and characteristics are similar to ours, is the most robust ethical argument that today challenges the long-standing consensus on the moral exclusivity of human beings. Thus, the movement confronts the traditional social pact, which has also historically excluded animalized human groups, by recognizing the fundamental rights and dignity conferred on animals because of their independent and direct interest in their own well-being.


Foto. José Alberto Zendejas

Although in the last decade the animal rights movement has achieved remarkable gains such as the prohibition of cruel practices with animals, laws for their protection, the formation of a growing public sensitivity, and a place on the agendas of media outlets, the development of a comprehensive political, legislative and cultural agenda that permits the advancement towards ending the exploitation of animals is still urgent. It would suffice to outline a brief overview:
1) No Latin American country has managed to resolve mounting issues that affect so-called pet animals, whose lives are subjected to abandonment, physical and emotional abuse (including sexual abuse), neglect by the state, sacrifice as a method of population control, as well as legal and illegal trade. 2) The exploitation of working animals in practices such as the use of the “bomb-dog” and the “drug-dog” on the part of security and surveillance enterprises and the conversion of horses into animal-drawn vehicles still persists. 3) The exploitation of animals as raw materials in large industries like experimentation (pharmaceutical, cosmetics and military), entertainment (circuses, aquariums, zoos, “theme parks,” cockfights, bullfights and a variety of shows), furs (now vulgarly presented as a green industry with the use of fur farms), and the food industry which, in addition to the traditional sectors, has developed a wide range of “exotic and native cuisine” based on industrialized and artisanal exploitation of wild and endemic animals also continues. 4) Similarly, there remains the trafficking of wild and exotic animals (the third most lucrative illegal commerce after arms and drugs trade) whose life abounds in the varied ecosystems of the region and in the wonderful forests of the Amazon, also devastated by stupidity and hunger for power and easy money. To this point, Colombia, the country with the second greatest level of biodiversity in the world, also occupies the same place in the trafficking and illegal wildlife trade. Its zoos have become unfortunate receptacles where more than 90 percent of the population consists of confiscated animals who can never return to freedom because of the actions of human beings.
That these wrongs persist is largely because, without exception, the legal systems of the countries of Latin America have not overcome the most paralyzing and stunting legacies of the Roman legal tradition that are reflected in their civil codes. I am referring to the legal status of animals as personal property, which means they are susceptible to domination and appropriation, and their legal treatment is determined according to the logic of the economy. Indeed, animals are part of the heritage of people (as is the case with domestic animals) and of the nation (as is the case with wild animals), the latter merely considered a natural resource. If some jurisdictions have recognized the condition of animals as “sentient beings,” thus configuring the mixed legal category of “sentient things,” it has not been enough to emancipate them from the condition of things and from the regime of property.
Furthermore, as is the case in many countries in the region, animal protection laws are riddled with exceptions to permit, among other activities: cruel animal shows legalized as “cultural events”, the use of animals in research, hunting, and the intensive exploitation of animals in activities still considered economically vital, such as with livestock, despite the demonstration of said activities’ culpability in the global environmental crisis (FAO, Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006). Lastly, most of the punitive actions against animal abuse tend to be frivolous, if not impossible to implement.


Foto. José Alberto Zendejas

A remarkable advance of the new Latin American constitutionalism of the last three decades has certainly been the inclusion of the environment from the perspective of collective rights (Brazil 1988, Colombia 1991, Argentina 1994, Chile 2005, in addition to the innovative Ecuadorian constitution of 2008 that incorporated nature as a subject of rights). However, the protection of animals arising from therein is restricted to the benefits that the environment represents for humans and the conservation of those species whose environments and ecosystems are important for the welfare of people. In other words, environmental law is far from providing protection to animals as individuals: exactly the perspective that demands the paradigm of animal rights. Clearing the wall of the reification of animals by means of a new legal category –in addition to things and people– is the legal challenge of this century, as is extending the political and moral community to include animals who, by virtue of their sentience, are morally relevant.
The struggle for animal rights has not been and never will be easy because of the resistance created during centuries of anthropocentrism, habits, and symbolic and economic benefits derived from their exploitation; however, many people are relentlessly devoted to the struggle. In any case, changing the lives of animals is in our hands: in the daily decisions of every human being who opts to prioritize the force of ethics and good judgment over the whims of the palate and blind consumerism.
Recognizing and guaranteeing the rights of animals is part of the pending ethical agenda for Latin America (and the entire world) that could, in turn, be the most radical transformation of human consciousness in the name of justice and compassion. This is the moral frontier that lays before us.