In matters of ethics all religions teach the same general principles, but may differ considerably in specific applications. While all religions teach the virtue of kindness to our neighbours, Buddhism is particularly noted for its very strong emphasis on non-harming. And it differs from some others in that this ethical precept is extended broadly to our non-human neighbours as well. Animals are seen as conscious entities capable of feeling pain and pleasure, and there is no concept that they were given to us for our use.
In part this is because of the Buddhist idea of rebirth. An animal is not fundamentally different from a human, because it may at one time have been a human and has taken rebirth in animal form according to its karma. Likewise, if a human's actions in this life are such as to cause pain and suffering in other beings, he or she might take a lower rebirth and experience the pain of the animal realm next time around. But a more immediately practical consideration is the simple recognition that they are sentient beings, i.e., entities possessed of conscious awareness.
Currently before Parliament is an important bill regarding animal cruelty (Bill C-10). This is the first major piece of legislation on the subject since 1892. The interesting thing about the proposed legislation is that for the first time in Canada an animal will be legally recognized as "a being that feels pain" rather than as simply a piece of property. This is a significant recognition of a simple and obvious reality, but sometimes it takes a century or more for law to catch up with common sense. It is certainly a definition which a Buddhist can accept.
It may be this phrase which has inspired some opposition to the bill from the various special interests involved in economic exploitation of animals, e.g.. livestock farmers, trappers etc. It is hard to imagine that the practical aspects of the legislation would upset them, this is hardly a radical bill and makes very little real difference to the day-to-day way animals are treated. There are specific allowances for what are called "legal excuse" which are ample to protect all traditional economic activity. The bill is aimed almost exclusively at exceptional and wanton acts of cruelty, and not on the various forms of institutionalized suffering inflicted on animals.
The last animal protection act was passed at the time when the humane society movement was becoming prominent, and we have probably regressed in our ethical treatment of animals since then. Certainly in the course of the twentieth century farming practices have become more cruel, especially in the matter of close confinement. Medical research, fur-farming and rodeos are also areas where animal suffering is inflicted. This legislation barely begins to address these concerns. And there is definitely room for improvement, Canadian standards are far behind many European countries.
Nevertheless, this legislation should pass as it stands and the government should resist the special pleading of interested parties who would hobble it with amendments. This is not a perfect world and realistically we will never eliminate animal suffering, and we will not even end deliberate institutionalized suffering any time soon. But it is a huge moral victory for common sense, and common decency, to have this new definition of an "animal" on the books. It will allow a basis for future reforms of a more positive and practical nature.