The year is 2020 and you are driving down a lonely road at dusk. Suddenly a kangaroo darts in front of your car. It happens too quickly for you to react and there is a dull thud as you hit the roo. Two days later a police officer hands you a summons. The roo’s joey is suing you for wrongful death and emotional trauma. The Animal Defence League is paying for its lawyer.

It is an implausible, but not impossible scenario. After civil rights law for human minorities and environmental law for plants, animal rights has become the new frontier for idealistic lawyers. In the United States, at least 40 universities already teach animal law, including some of the most prestigious, like Harvard and Georgetown. There are even law firms which specialise in animal rights. There is an animal law journal.

It has wealthy patrons, as well. Bob Barker, host of the games show "The Price Is Right" in the United States, recently gave US$1 million to Northwestern University to set up a course in animal rights law. He had already given endowments to University of California at Los Angeles, Duke University, Stanford University, Columbia University and Harvard Law School. "Animals need all the protection we can give them," Barker said. "We intend to train a growing number of law students in this area of the law in the hope that they will ultimately lead a national effort to make it illegal to brutalise and exploit these helpless creatures."

For this new generation of lawyers, animals deserve far more than freedom from cruelty. Animals are persons, not property, they argue, and they are entitled to fundamental legal rights, such as the right to bodily integrity and liberty.

Cases which have reached US courts in recent years include stays of execution for dogs who have bitten people and a suit brought on behalf of a lonely chimpanzee in a zoo. (Unhappily, before the case was settled, Barney was shot dead by a keeper when he escaped and bit someone.) A couple of months ago, a retired teacher in Seattle was awarded US$45,000 his neighbour’s dog mauled her beloved 12-year-old cat. The amount awarded included $30,000 for the pet’s special value and $15,000 for emotional distress.

The right to a square mealAt the moment, the law in most countries protects animals from cruelty, but does not confer rights upon them. Rights are held only by persons. “Personhood is the gold standard,” says Mr Wise, who is also the author of Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals. “When you become a legal person, you have legal rights. When slaves were not persons, they could be treated illegally.”

They have already notched up a world-first in New Zealand. In 1999 a law was passed prohibiting the use of all great apes in research, testing or teaching unless it is “in the best interest of the non-human hominid” or “in the interests of the species to which it belongs”.

In the eyes of animal rights activists the stakes are high. Steven Wise heatedly compares the plight of domestic animals to slavery. Ingrid Newkirk, the high-profile director of a group of activists called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has even compared the poultry industry to the Holocaust. “Six million people died in concentration camps, but six billion chickens die each year in slaughterhouses.”  

It is easy to make a joke of animal rights – “What’s a pet subject at Harvard? Animal law. And who takes it? Legal beagles” – but some critics are issuing dire warnings that it could pose “a mortal threat to society”.

Richard Epstein, a law lecturer at the University of Chicago, wrote in the New York Times a few years ago, “Would even bacteria have rights? There would be nothing left of human society if we treated animals not as property but as independent holders of rights.”

Epstein isn’t far off the mark because the radical fringe of animal right activists do demand solidarity even with insects. Joan Dunayer, the author of Speciesism, is critical of “conservatives” like Wise and philosopher Peter Singer. She says “Speciesism’s hallmark trait is denial of nonhuman individuality. In reality, no animal is replaceable. Both physically and mentally, ever sentient being is unique. Every lobster, every crow, every housefly, is an individual who has a unique life experience and never will exist again.”

Epstein contends that society would suffer because activists demand that we cease using animals for consumption or labour, even if they seem to enjoy it and benefit from it. Although developed countries might be able to cope, it is unlikely that poorer countries would.

Another consequence would be a ban on the use of animals for almost any medical research, since it is a crime to experiment on persons. Research on diseases like AIDS and on organ transplantation would be crippled. Animal rights activists in the United Kingdom have already made life almost impossible for researchers who use animals with campaigns of sabotage and vilification.

Even more preposterous, but logically conceivable, Epstein argued, would be the weakening of human property rights. “Our entire system of property allows owners to transform the soil and to exclude others. Now, if the first human being on the scene may exclude subsequent arrivals, what happens when animals are given similar rights? Their dens, burrows, nests and hives long antedate human arrival. The principle of first possession might therefore block us from clearing the land for farms, homes and factories – unless we can find a way to make just compensation to each animal for its losses.”

On the other hand, some writers have pointed out, animal rights could pose a threat to animals if they were taken seriously. The notion of “animal rights” is a two-edged sword in the hands of activists. As politicians of all stripes have declared in recent times, rights imply responsibilities. But if one gorilla kills another, no one thinks of indicting the aggressor for murder. Freeing battery hens from their misery may be a worthwhile goal, but no animal liberationist has ever proposed charging free range hens with assault and battery over barnyard squabbles. Animal aggression is simply natural. But if animals have no free will, how can they have rationality?

In fact, one respected scientist, Frans de Waal, of the Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia, argues that the concept of “rights” makes no sense for animals.

“What if we drop this talk of rights and instead advocate a sense of obligation? In the same way we teach children to respect a tree by mentioning its age, we should use the new insights into animals’ mental life to foster in humans an ethic of caring in which our interests are not the only ones in the balance,” he has written.

Animal speech

Equal rights can lead to conflict In recent years, research into animal language has become intertwined with animal rights. If animals can talk, they can think. If they can think, they must be persons.

One highly-publicised case is an orang-utan named Chantek in the Atlanta Zoo, in Georgia. Raised as a human by anthropologist Dr Lyn Miles, Chantek is said to be able to communicate in American sign language, understand human speech, make necklaces with elaborate knots and execute paintings. Dr Miles regards him as her “her cross-foster son”. Not far away, at Georgia State University’s Language Research Center, two pygmy chimpanzees, or bonobos, named Kanzi and Panbanisha, have demonstrated the language skills of 2½ year-old children, according to their observers. (Both kinds of apes have to use sign language because their pharynxes are too small for speech.)

High claims are made for other animals, too. Irene Pepperberg, a biologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says that we ought to revise our understanding of “bird brains”. She claimed that she has trained a parrot named Alex to count up to six and to understand concepts such as “same”, “coloured” and “how many?”.

However, the existence of true language (and therefore rationality) amongst animals has its sceptics. Animals as lowly as bees and ants can communicate, but proving that animals communicate abstract ideas through language is another thing altogether. It is difficult to prove that scientists are not reading human traits into the animals they are studying. Reporters’ open-mouthed accounts of visits to Chantek, Kanzi and Panbanisha sound as if they have plagiarised from Kipling’s Jungle Book. Critics of attempts to teach apes language (for the decade it seems to have been the same handful of talented apes) accuse researchers of inaccurate observation and analysis, over-interpretation and giving the animals cues which elicit automatic responses. (The range of their interests is rather limited as well. None of the animals has ever asked for a lawyer to enforce his rights).

One big happy family?

But the strongest argument for animal rights is not based on whether they can talk. It is that we are fundamentally no different from animals. The issue is not whether a line should be drawn between talking humans and non-talking apes. It is whether lines should be drawn at all.

This seems to be the main point of Peter Singer, of Princeton University. “From an ethical point of view,” he says, “we all stand on an equal footing – whether we stand on two feet, or four, or none at all.”

The determining factor is consciousness. A fully conscious animal is more truly a person than a non compos human. As he says in his book Practical Ethics, “For any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of the foetus at any stage of pregnancy.”

Therefore, he maintains, it is a criminal inconsistency to conduct experiments on a chimp while forbidding them on a retarded human. “This is speciesism, pure and simple, and it is as indefensible as the most blatant racism.”

In a similar vein, Steven Wise argues that humanity is no big deal. “Darwin showed that the world was created in a far more random way and that humans are not superior to anything by divine decree.”

Death of humanism

It is easy to see, then, that animals rights threaten more than property rights and medical research. It would mean the death of humanism itself, the belief that man has a special place in the universe. Hamlet’s famous words – “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties!… the beauty of the world! The paragon of animals” – must sound like outdated speciesist claptrap to Singer and Wise.

Some critics have argued the movement for animal rights is motivated by an anti-Christian philosophy. Certainly Wise agrees that Christianity is antiquated and irrelevant. “Being made in the image of God is a matter of faith… Western law is not overtly based on religious values any more. Nor is it based on any absolutes,” he has argued.

However, Christianity is far from hostile to animals. St Thomas Aquinas is often quoted as an example of Christian contempt for animals. But although he taught that animals were made for man’s use, he also taught that it was never lawful for a man to take delight in the pain of animals because he would thereby degrade and brutalise himself. In recent years the late Pope John Paul II has been a strong defender of care for the environment, stressing that man must see himself as a steward of the natural world.

Perhaps the best explanation for the push to declare animals persons is that contemporary society has such a low standard of personhood that it makes sense to invite apes and talking parrots to share it. We live in a world where most countries have legalised abortion and where legalised euthanasia is just over the horizon. Some forms of human life – the most defenceless ones – no longer have the protection of law. Human life is no longer sacred in the eyes of many people. In this context, an argument which concludes that being human is not a special status begins to seem quite plausible.

But everyday experience shows that people are altogether different from animals, whatever philosophers might say. Humans can reason; they act altruistically; they seek justice; they create art and admire it.

But one of the biggest differences between animals and humans is their attitude towards pain. Animals always resist pain – as does the animal side of our human nature. But humans can also accept pain, and even embrace it – to win at sport, to support a family, or to remain faithful to their spiritual or moral principles.

This does not give humans the right to subject animals to useless suffering, but it shows decisively that humans can transcend the limitations of their physical nature in a way that no animal will ever be able to do.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....