Newsletter - Animal Writes © sm
26 July 2000 Issue

Personhood For Primates?
By Ellen Sung,

From: [email protected] (Maynard S. Clark)

For decades, the animal-rights movement has worked incrementally to try to change the way that people treat animals. Members of the movement have argued for laws preventing cruelty against animals used for entertainment and agricultural purposes, crusaded against the trade of furs and publicly decried animal experimentation for human drugs and cosmetics. Now, as some of the most active believers gather outside Washington, D.C., for the Animal Rights 2000 Conference, the movement's biggest meeting in three years, some animal-rights activists are fighting for the most far-reaching legal change they have ever proposed -- the declaration of "personhood" for animals.

"For four thousand years, a thick and impenetrable legal wall has separated all human from all nonhuman animals. On one side, even the most trivial interests of a single species -- ours -- are jealously guarded," wrote Harvard law professor Steven Wise, one of the nation's foremost animal law experts, in his recent book, Rattling the Cage.

"On the other side of that wall lies the legal refuse of an entire kingdom [who] are 'legal things.' Their most basic and fundamental interests -- their pains, their lives, their freedoms -- are intentionally ignored, often maliciously trampled, and routinely abused."

Of particular interest to Wise and others advocating "personhood" are chimpanzees and bonobos, sometimes referred to as "pygmy chimpanzees." The DNA of these primates differs by less than one percent from humans, making them popular for use in research for currently uncurable diseases, such as AIDS.

But the number of these animals has been greatly reduced. One century ago, there were some 5 million wild chimpanzees in Africa; today, there are only 200,000. Wise argues that the depletion is because thousands of chimpanzees and bonobos are killed every year, not only in medical experiments, but also because they are prized by some cultures in sub-Saharan Africa as a delicacy.

Because they are so genetically similar to humans -- and because they have been found to have mental abilities strikingly similar to humans -- chimpanzees should be given a bill of rights, Wise argues.

"Justice entitles chimpanzees and bonobos to legal personhood and to the
fundamental legal rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty," Wise wrote in his book. "Their abuse and their murder must be forbidden for what they are: genocide."

Prof. Gary L. Francione, who was a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and who now teaches animal law at Rutgers University, said in a The New York Times article that a precedent could be set by lawsuits filed on behalf of gorillas which hold that "they should be declared to be 'persons' under the Constitution," with constitutional rights.

The nascent field of animal law has gained considerable attention in the last five years. Since 1999, three major law schools -- Harvard, Georgetown, and Rutgers -- have decided to offer courses in animal law, and the discipline even has its own legal journal, run by students from Northwestern and Lewis and Clark. Much of the academic work in the field concentrates on comparisons between laws that freed blacks from slavery and civil rights law, and current laws treating animals as property.

Existing anti-cruelty legislation, said Georgetown Law professor Valerie Stanley in an interview with Campus Report, was crafted in the 1800s when animals were used for labor, and is obsolete now. “Every time our society has to rethink whether we are going to include or exclude a certain group,” she stated, “we throw up economic reasons why it’s not feasible to do so… That’s been done with slavery. It’s been done with women. Animals, to a certain extent, could be considered the next frontier," said Stanley.

One goal of animal law is to increase the penalties for animal cruelty -- in some states, the crime has been upgraded from a misdemeanor to a felony -- and to create legal precedents in which animals are seen as more than ordinary property. In some cases, courts have increased damages for loss of companionship or for emotional distress when a pet is killed. A federal appeals court ruled in 1998 that a human zoo visitor could sue to get companionship for chimpanzees.

"Anything that we can do to get the public to regard animals as the sentient beings that they are, separate from how they can entertain us or feed us or clothe us, is a good thing," says Lisa Lange, director of policy and communications for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But other legal scholars argue that declaring "personhood" for animals would undermine the American legal system. "Would we then proffer rights to whales and dolphins? Rats and mice? Would even bacteria have rights?" said Richard A. Epstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School in an article in The Seattle Times. "There would be nothing left of human society if we treated animals not as property but as independent holders of rights."

Much public sentiment exists against the notion of granting animals' "personhood." Hunting and fishing groups oppose the idea of granting animals more rights, as do farmers and livestock groups, who say that the animal-law movement is trying to put them out of business. And pharmaceutical companies and research laboratories are concerned that the medical experimentation may be curtailed or banned, if rights activists get their way.

The article mentions:
Animal-rights activists want to change the legal status of animals.
Animal Rights Law Center at Rutgers University
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals
Animal Legal Defense Fund
Animal Rights Law
Animal Law Journal
Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals by Steven Wise
Animal Concerns Community

And, of course, the poll:
Should primates be given legal personhood status?

So far: Y N TOTAL
NUMBER 277 41 318
PERCENTAGE 87 13 100%

Be sure to check out their Daily Briefing archive for more issue briefs.

Personhood for Primates, Animals
Legal Pioneers Seek to Raise Lowly Status of Animals
August 19, 1999
Writing for The New York Times, William Glaberson examines the new field of law that is emerging around the issue of animal rights. More and more law schools are offering courses in animal law, he says, and more and more lawyers are representing animals in court.

The Case For the Personhood of Gorillas
July 3, 2000
In this report for, Francine Patterson and Wendy Gordon argue that any individual who is 'self-aware, intelligent, emotional, communicative, has memories and purposes of her own' has a claim to basic moral rights, whether that individual is human or a gorilla. The subject of the report is a 26-year-old gorilla named Koko.

Animals as Property
July 3, 2000
In the introduction to Animal Law, Gary L. Francione argues 'social attitudes about animals are hopelessly confused.' Animals are at the same time revered as members of the family as pets and used as clothing, experimented on and eaten. This complexity, he argues, makes it difficult for animal-rights activists to change the legal status of 'nonhumans.'

Legal Status Should Remain Same
We the People (and Other Animals)…
September 20, 1999
In this editorial for The New York Times, Frans B. M. De Waal writes about the trend of animal law cases now being heard, which argue that animals deserve solid and uncontestable rights. Such cases are logically and morally flawed he says, arguing that animals cannot become full members of society.

Some Animals are More Equal Than Others
December 2, 1999
Brad Knickerbocker, writing for The Christian Science Monitor, reports that the way animals are protected in court is changing in a profound and disruptive way. He argues that the law must continue to protect animals from cruelty, but that it should not raise them to equal status with humans.

Another Monkey Trial
September 20, 1999
According to John Leo, in his article for U.S. News & World Report, efforts by animal-rights lawyers to use slavery-era statutes to fight for animals’ legal rights are how “rights-talk” becomes a parody of itself. “Any radical notion that vastly inflates the concept of rights and requires a lot more litigation,” he writes, “is apt to take root in the law schools.”

Go on to Dogma, Dogs, and Death
Return to 26 July 2000 Issue
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