The New York Times ran a quite ridiculous article (Should a chimp be able to sue its owner?) in its weekend magazine about Steven Wise, a law professor cum animal activist who is trying to establish a legal basis for treating some animals as people under the law, specifically arguing in at least one case that the writ of habeas corpus (Latin for “produce the body”) should apply to captive animals (in this instance, ‘Tommy’ a captive chimp whose owner had died) as well as to humans. So far all of his ‘clients’ are a few chimps held in captivity in a legally sanctioned and approved manner, but he has grand plans to expand the litigation to elephants and perhaps whales, because, well, they seem to be really smart and capable of ascertaining time and are ‘autonomous’ beings, whatever that means. It is the very fact of captivity to which he objects. Autonomous beings should not be held captive against their will. An accompanying video to the article is where I got to the title to the post, Animals are people, too.
To the notion that animals are people, too, I would reply that people are also animals. But why would anyone want to impose that sort of cruelty on animals, of treating animals as if they were people? Animals in the developed world (and it is only in the developed world that a ridiculous crusade like this could ever gain traction) are treated with a reverence reserved only for the possessions that rich people hold dear. Leona Helmsley’s dog was the main beneficiary of her estate, beating out her kids by a mile. There are psychiatrists and actual medical specialists for the average pet’s veterinary needs. When my dog went blind, I was referred to a doggie ophthalmologist. Really. The dog’s still blind, but my wallet is several hundred dollars lighter, while a new dog with good eyes at the animal shelter costs about $65 in adoption fees. Cat food is sold as if the animals are gourmands. While the animals Wise purports to represent aren’t usually owned as pets but are used in circus acts and such, they are subject to a litany of animal protection laws and regulations. Animals have got it really, really good in these United States of America, and presumably everywhere else that is similarly as rich.
Humans around the world, on the other hand, are not so sumptuously pampered. Imagine the outcry in the West had it been sixteen guide dogs that had perished on Mt. Everest in the recent avalanche that killed sixteen Sherpa. That the Sherpa died was really no big deal. They were being paid, right? They knew the risks, right? The Sherpa would have been better off as slaves, or in Wise’s animal parlance, as captives. Then at least their owners would have had an economic interest in their welfare. As it happened, their employers were making big money selling their services to rich Westerners while not concerning themselves at all with their welfare. And the plight of the Sherpa is only a very visible and romantic example of the cruelty and disregard humans have for their fellows. There are millions and millions more upon whom global capitalism depends who labor in wretched conditions about which PETA would protest vociferously were the laborers non-human.
I doubt Wise gets the irony in claiming the writ of habeas corpus applies to non-human animals when countless scores of human animals have been denied the writ through the centuries, notably in the US when Abe Lincoln suspended it during the Civil War, and most recently, in the US’s obsessive-compulsive prosecution of the amorphous War on Terror. Indeed, apply the writ to all captive animals, including humans, and there would be more justice in the world, at least for humans. Regardless of how anthropomorphizing are his instincts, non-human animals have no sense of human justice. There are no dolphins at the bar and no orcas on the Supreme Court, though it’s hard to see where dolphins couldn’t do as well as human lawyers, particularly ones like Wise, or that orcas wouldn’t be more worthy of reverence than the human Supreme Court justices.
Of course, this latest attempt at expanding the rights creeping around the Constitution’s penumbra considers its struggle analogous to the struggle for civil rights for blacks and gays and pregnant women, in other words, it is a struggle that should reverberate with all the oppressed animals in the Democratic Party zoo, from the article:
“It’s those deeply held beliefs that I’m concerned about,” he told me. “The judge who either doesn’t recognize that he’s ruling against us on those grounds, or who does, and decides that way anyway. Our challenge is to lay bare that bias against our facts. I will say: ‘Judge, you know, we’ve been here before. We’ve had people who’ve essentially said, “I’m sorry, but you’re black.” Or “I’m sorry, you’re not a male or a heterosexual.” And this has led us to some very bad places.’ ”
Much like other civil rights movements, the Nh.R.P.’s efforts are designed to be a systematic assault; a continued and repeated airing of the evidence now at hand so that other lawyers and eventually judges and society as a whole can move past what Wise considers the increasingly arbitrary distinction of species as the determinant of who should hold a right.
Those “deeply held beliefs” include the notion that people are separate and distinct beings from animals. Buying into Wise’s notion perhaps requires a bit of Eastern mysticism, a belief that all creatures are sacred and vital and we are all one with each other. Which I have no trouble buying into. But the machinery of the law was created by humans for humans and we need to first deploy it to help the human species. Once humans everywhere are treated as well as animals anywhere, I’d say go ahead and vest the animals with rights. Until then, let’s concentrate on ensuring the rights of that portion of the animal population that has opposable thumbs and language. A bit of inter-species bigotry is a good and natural thing (bigotry in its simplest form, is favoring one’s own group over another group–here, I mean favoring H. sapiens over all other species–and please, don’t try to tell me that a chimpanzee has anything remotely approaching the human capacity for language).