A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Why the Animal Rights Movement Is Still a Contradiction in Terms

chimp-112113How’s the animal rights movement doing? If you rate it by the simple question “How many animals have rights?” you’d have to say that so far it’s been a complete failure.

That’s because the only animal with any legal rights whatever is the human animal. To this day, no other animal has any rights at all.

Certainly there have been some advances in animal welfare (which is about improving conditions for animals when they don’t have rights). If you’re a homeless dog or cat, for example, you’re more likely to be adopted, rather than killed, than you were 25 years ago. And if you’re a hen laying eggs at a factory farm, you may soon be getting a few more inches of space in the cage where you spend your entire life.

But while there are certainly many “animal rights” organizations, there are still no animal rights. Whether you’re an elephant at the zoo, a pig at a factory farm, a mouse or a chimpanzee at a laboratory or even Fido and Fluffy in a good home, you are viewed by the legal system as a piece of property with no more rights than a car or a DVD player. You may be protected by certain (generally quite weak) laws, but you have no more rights than any other piece of property.

While there are many “animal rights” organizations, there are still no animal rights.The same, of course, was true for many humans until quite recently. Slaves, by definition, were viewed as the property of their owners. In many parts of the world, women and children are still viewed as property. (Corporations and ships, by contrast, are “legal persons” with certain legal rights.)

All of this may be about to change, however. For the first time ever, a lawsuit is about to be filed on behalf of a chimpanzee who is being held in captivity, asking a judge to recognize that she has the right not to be imprisoned.

NhRP-Key-Image-sm-112113This lawsuit is being brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project – a group composed largely of attorneys and legal experts that’s supported by an international group of scientists who will testify to the fact that chimpanzees are self-aware and autonomous, meaning that they meet all reasonable standards for having the basic rights to bodily liberty and bodily integrity. (Full disclosure: I am part of the team.)

This is almost exactly the same thing as happened about 250 years ago when, in 1769, James Somerset, a slave from Virginia, was brought to London by his owner, Charles Steuart. Somerset escaped but was recaptured and put in chains on a ship that was heading out to the sugar plantations of Jamaica. Before the ship could sail, however, a group of abolitionist attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus on his behalf, and the case went before the Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench, Lord Mansfield. In what was one of the most important trials in Anglo-American history, Lord Mansfield ruled that Somerset could not be held as a piece of property, and set him free.

This did not, of course, bring an end to slavery. It took many lawsuits to build momentum over the next 100 years. Some were won, some were lost, and eventually it led to bloodshed.

The question of what rights you can have should not be judged by what species you are, any more than it should be judged by your gender or the color of your skin.It’s difficult today for people to accept that certain fundamental rights, like the right to bodily liberty, should be extended to a nonhuman animal. But it was equally difficult for slave owners to imagine their captives being treated as anything but their personal property.

When the Nonhuman Rights Project files its first suit, it will be petitioning a court on behalf of a chimpanzee to set her free and have her transferred to a sanctuary where she can live as close as possible to what nature intended.

Like the Somerset case, this will just be the first of many such suits on behalf of such cognitively complex animals as great apes, dolphins and whales, and elephants. Some judges will rule in favor, others may not. But the momentum will build, just as it did when people sought legal rights for slaves – and for women and children.

The question of what rights you have should not be judged by what species you are, any more than it should be judged by your gender or the color of your skin. The scientific evidence is now overwhelming that great apes, elephants, and whales and dolphins have a highly sophisticated level of cognition, which makes it as cruel and wrong to keep them in cages, chains and pools for the entertainment and profit of humans as it was, not long ago, to do this to other humans.

After all, as Abraham Lincoln put it: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free.” When you deny freedom to anyone who deserves it, you undermine the freedom of everyone.