Using Focus Groups to Explore Public Perceptions of Legal Rights for Animals
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A robust debate regarding the ideal legal status of nonhuman animals has been taking place for some time among legal scholars, philosophers, animal scientists, social scientists, and humanists. Significantly less attention has been paid, however, to exploring how members of the public conceptualize the legal treatment of animals, including what they see as the primary merits and drawbacks of proposed animal rights frameworks. Using focus groups with a non-activist population, this research explored how members of the public conceptualize the treatment of animals in society, generally, and under the law, specifically. From there, it set out to investigate how they responded to key concepts and messages used by advocates, as well as opponents, of animal legal rights. The findings help explain how individuals activate an interconnected mix of psychological and cultural norms, interpersonal and inter-species experiences, and mediated communication connections to form attitudes toward different categories of animals. What takes shape is an often contradictory set of beliefs about what animal legal rights could or should entail, as well as which animals are deserving of legal protections. While respondents hoped for a world in which animals were treated with greater respect, and they generally saw welfare-oriented legal protections of animals as valuable, when thinking about actual implementation, their support for animal legal rights was tempered by a set of intuitive and logistical misgivings. Primary objections centered on questions of how legal lines could be drawn to include certain species but not others, as well as the pragmatics of how animals could advocate for a defense of their own rights. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the implications of these findings for researchers, as well as legal and advocacy practitioners.
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