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
"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
their lives, their freedoms -- are intentionally ignored, often
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
his book. "Their abuse and their murder must be forbidden for what they
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 Koko.org, 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
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
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
Return to Newsletters
** Fair Use Notice**
This document may contain copyrighted material, use of which has not been
specifically authorized by the copyright owners. I believe that this
not-for-profit, educational use on the Web constitutes a fair use of the
copyrighted material (as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright
Law). If you wish to use this copyrighted material for purposes of your
own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright