Story: Animal welfare and rights

Page 3. Animal liberation and animal rights

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Animal liberation

In the 1970s a new movement – animal liberation – emerged in the wake of other liberation movements for oppressed groups, including racial minorities, women and gay people. Inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, the movement drew on previous anti-vivisection and animal rights thinking. In Animal liberation (1975), Singer argued that because both animals and humans were sentient creatures that suffered pain and distress, their interests deserved equal consideration. He described as ‘speciesist’ the belief that human interests should always come first. In addition, he denounced the large-scale late-20th-century abuses of animals: commercial vivisection and factory farming.

Animal rights

Other philosophers went further than Singer, arguing that animals should have rights enshrined in law. Animal rights activists often distanced themselves from animal welfarists, whom they saw as too conservative. They also advocated a ‘cruelty-free’ diet – vegetarian or, preferably, vegan.

Animal rights groups

As a consequence of the debates around animal liberation and animal rights, a number of radical groups were formed in Britain and other countries. Some of these, such as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), raided vivisection laboratories and battery farms to liberate the animals held there. Others, notably the Animal Rights Militia, advocated violence, planting car and letter bombs, and some members were jailed for their actions. Meanwhile, existing anti-vivisection and animal advocacy groups were revitalised.

New Zealand organisations

In New Zealand small animal rights groups and ALF cells operated in the late 1970s and 1980s. Some of them continued through into the 21st century.

Active anti-vivisection groups emerged from the ashes of the long-established branches of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV).


In Wellington English immigrant Bette Overell tried to establish a new branch of the BUAV to replace the one that had faded away. When she got no support from the parent organisation in London, she set up the New Zealand Anti-Vivisection Society (NZAVS) in 1978. The NZAVS campaigned against vivisection on the grounds that it was scientifically unsound, and in 1989 presented a petition to Parliament calling for the abolition of vivisection, with 100,640 signatures. After Overell’s retirement in the mid-1990s, the NZAVS was based in Christchurch.

Anti-vivisection activists campaigned for restrictions on the use of non-hominoid great apes in association with the international Great Ape Project. Restrictions on harm to individual animals became illegal in New Zealand under Section 85 of the Animal Welfare Act 1999. This was recognised internationally as a significant achievement for animal rights.

NZAVS continued to actively campaign against the use of animal testing in the 21st century. It led a campaign to prevent legal highs being tested on animals and the testing of cosmetics on animals in New Zealand. In 2015 it was successful in achieving the discontinuation of the Draize test (a skin and eye test used on animals) in New Zealand.


In Auckland the local BUAV branch regrouped and renamed itself Save Animals From Experiments (SAFE) in 1978. It also campaigned against vivisection, presenting a petition with 120,000 signatures in 1982.

Scientists fought back, persuading Parliament to allow animal experiments to continue under stricter guidelines. In the 1980s amendments were made to the Animals Protection Act 1960, introducing codes of ethical conduct and an ethics advisory committee to regulate experiments on animals.

Caged for freedom

In April 2011 Carl Scott spent a month inside a cage on the side of the road north of Dunedin to draw attention to the plight of battery hens. His protest was inspired by SAFE’s No Cages Campaign, and helped the organisation publicise its attempts to change the Layer Hen Code of Welfare.

From vivisection to wider animal rights issues

In 1987 SAFE changed its name to Save Animals From Exploitation to reflect a broader approach to animal rights issues. It began major campaigns against battery farming of chickens and the use of crates for pigs, with considerable success. As a result of these campaigns, cages for battery hens were increased in size from 2008, and in December 2015 sow stalls were banned. Factory farming remains a major issue for animal rights activists. SAFE opposes colony cages for battery hens and its ultimate goal is to ban cages completely.

In the 21st century SAFE aimed to improve animals’ lives by raising awareness, challenging abusive practices and changing attitudes. In 2017 it had over 20,000 members who are involved in a range of campaigns, demonstrations, meetings, educational activities and research relating to improving human-animal relations in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Vegetarianism and veganism and animal rights

Many vegetarians in New Zealand avoid consumption of meat, fish and bird flesh for ethical and political reasons. The New Zealand Vegetarian Society advocates vegetarianism as both a healthy life style and a way of reducing cruelty to animals, protecting the environment and preserving natural resources.

Vegans often avoid the consumption and use of all animal, fish and bird products as an animal rights life style that avoids the exploitation of animals by humans. VeganNZ provides information about alternatives to meat and dairy products, non-animal clothing and footwear. The society produces a vegan magazine, hosts blogs about vegan life styles on its website, and organizes festivals and other public events.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Animal welfare and rights - Animal liberation and animal rights', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 August 2022)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 1 Jul 2017