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Animal Rights (an excerpt from The Complete Book of Buddha's Lists -- Explained by David N. Snyder, Ph.D., 2006).
Surveys have shown that about half of all Buddhists are vegetarian or nearly vegetarian. Some ask if this translates into joining the Animal Rights cause.
Being an animal rights activist is certainly a noble cause to undertake, if one so chooses, but it has been my experience that only a very small percentage of Buddhists take the vegetarian message that far. There is nothing wrong with being an animal rights activist for those who want to, but the media does tend to portray the activists as extremists and sometimes as terrorists.
A Buddhist middle way position could be to take the view on the sanctity of all life and to prevent the misuse, abuse, and killing of animals as much as possible.
Here are some of the positions animal rights activists have taken and a potential Buddhist middle way answer:
Nearly all animal rights activists are opposed to eating or promoting the consumption of animal products, such as eggs, milk, and cheese. The activists note that many farms that produce animal products keep the animals in confined quarters, such as ten or more hens in one very small cage, producing eggs. The lights are kept on 24 hours a day so that they will produce more eggs.
A Buddhist middle way position could be to eat animal products, if you so choose, if they came from cage free, organic, more natural farms. Now there are farms where the animals are kept in a more natural setting without hormone and anti-biotic injections and other bad conditions.
Nearly all animal rights activists are opposed to animal experimentation of any kind, including dissection for educational purposes in schools.
A Buddhist middle way position could be to allow animal testing only if it is absolutely necessary and if it can be definitely shown that doing such research would save human lives. It is always terrible to kill any living being for any purpose, but in many cases animal research has led to cures to some diseases which have actually saved thousands of lives or more. Humans are members of the Animal Kingdom and we share virtually identical organs to many animal species. This is why animal research has been so successful, including the vaccine for polio. But we must still not forget the ethical arguments. The animals should be kept in humane conditions and not be tortured under any circumstance. There is far too much animal experimentation in the name of research and some of the repetition should be cut back, but the number of animals killed in experiments still pales in comparison to the number killed for food. The number killed in research laboratories is in the millions while the number killed for food is in the billions to nearly trillions per year.
Fur and leather
All animal rights activists are opposed to the wearing of fur. The arguments are very valid; that no one needs fur to keep warm (there are numerous alternatives), the animals the fur comes from need to be trapped which can be quite painful, and it takes several fur animals to make one coat. Many activists are also opposed to wearing leather because it is usually from the skins of cows and bulls.
A Buddhist middle way position would be to agree with the activists one hundred percent on the fur issue. In this day and age there is no need for furs and there is no consumption of the fur animal’s meat. The animals are being killed strictly for the furs. However, with the case of leather, no animal is being killed to make leather as the leather is made from the skins of animals killed for food. If we lived in a vegetarian world, animals would have to be killed to make leather. But, since a vegetarian world is a long way off, there is no harm in using leather products, if one so chooses.
In the Buddhist Vinaya (rules for monks and nuns) the Buddha makes it a rule that the monastics cannot use antelope skins (Mahavagga 8.28) and also deer skins (Mahavagga 5.10), but then makes an exception (Mahavagga 5.13) where it is the custom / culture and so long as no being was killed specifically for the leather.