According to an article in sciencemag.org, three lawsuits filed last week that attempted to achieve “legal personhood” for chimpanzees have been struck down. They were the first step in a nationwide campaign to grant legal rights to a variety of animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project (NHRP) Executive Director Natalie Prosin tells ScienceInsider that her group expected this outcome. “We were pleasantly surprised at how respectful the judges were, specifically the two that allowed us to have oral hearings,” she says. “We were thrilled to be able to do that. Now we have something on record that we can take to appeals court.” She says her group is now preparing those appeals, which she hopes will be heard in about a year.
The author of an article in spiked-online.com disagrees, saying that even accepting a certain, limited capacity for cognition and emotion, chimpanzees can never be persons. A chimpanzee will never represent himself in court and demand his autonomy. A chimpanzee will never take on a job, walk into a store and make a purchase. A chimpanzee will never even express disdain at all the rubbish on TV. Chimpanzees will merely go on doing what chimpanzees have always done because they lack the scope for flexibility and engagement in anything beyond their spontaneous desires and immediate environment. Someone, the author says, should let the NHRP know that significant social change requires social and political engagement, not the swift turn of a judge’s gavel.
I have worked with animals all of my adult life and I have come to believe that it is not so much about the rights of animals as it is about our responsibilities as humans and as stewards of the planet. Societies decide what is right and what is wrong, and we create laws to prohibit the wrong. Keeping a chimp in a small cage is just plain wrong and should be prohibited by law. Does that mean chimps should never be kept in any sort of confinement? Probably not. Does that mean no animals should be kept in confinement? There are many gray areas to be sure, but the sooner we begin to focus on animal welfare and stop arguing animal rights, the sooner we will get to an acceptable answer.
Richard Cupp, a law professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, is a proponent of focusing on animal welfare rather than animal rights. “Animals are not persons,” he is quoted as saying in the article in sciencemag.org, “but that does not mean that abusing them is acceptable. Both humans and animals would be best served by placing a strong emphasis on human responsibility for humane treatment of animals rather than creating an artificial construct of animal personhood.”
In an article for the Toledo Blade newspaper in 1997, syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell put it this way. “The mush-headedness of our times is nowhere better illustrated than in the ‘animal rights’ movement. Animals have no rights because they have no responsibilities and are not part of our legal system. Being against cruelty to animals is one thing, talking nonsense is another.”