By Janita Wisch
Sun Herald, Sun Coast Media Group
As "Prevention of Animal Cruelty Month" comes to a
close, an important title should be noted. Steven M. Wise's "Rattling
the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals" is a definitive text on this
thought-provoking issue. Primatologist Jane Goodall in her forward calls
it "The Animals' Magna Carta." Wise makes the connection that in denying
creatures such as chimpanzees (who are so similar to humans) fundamental
rights, we undermine our own foundation of human rights. More plainly,
this isn't just an "animal problem," this is everyone's problem.
According to Wise, our culture currently operates under
an outmoded system when it comes to the policies and decisions we make
about animals, both domestic and wild. Throughout the text, he refers to
animals as "non-human animals," because, after all, humans are animals,
Language is just one way that humans distance themselves
from these close relatives. We often presuppose that when a creature is
called "animal," it has no reason, no intelligence, and no feeling. This
way of thinking concludes that humans, on the other hand, possess all of
these characteristics and are, therefore, superior to animals. We
further perpetuate this line of thinking by attributing all sorts of
undesirable characteristics to animals: brutal, ferocious,
blood-thirsty, uncivilized, dirty and stupid. Wise tells us the way we
view animals in our culture today began philosophically in ancient
"The belief that non-human animals are somehow 'made for
us' lies at the root of what the law says we can do to them today." He
points out that the historian Xenophon noted that Socrates felt that
animals exited solely for the use of people. Aristotle believed nature
was designed like a ladder, with the lowest rungs occupied by the lowest
life forms (plants, for example). These lowest rungs served the higher
rungs. In the middle were sentient beings (some animals fit into this
category). On the highest rungs were the "rational beings" or man, and
above all was divinity. Every creature had its place in this "natural"
hierarchy. Aristotle believed animals could not reason or possess
intellect, thought or belief and, therefore, could not possess emotions.
The Stoic philosophers reinforced this line of thinking, proposing that
plants supported animals, animals supported and served humans, and the
world was designed to benefit gods and men. Judeo-Christian belief also
reinforced what Wise terms this "great chain of being" theory.
The Bible speaks of humans having dominion over animals.
The Apostle Paul noted that Jesus did not care for oxen, and in the
Gospel of Mark, Jesus cast devils into a herd of swine. The medieval
theologians elaborated on the idea that almost anything could be done to
animals because they lacked the intelligence and rationality of man.
Animals were excluded from justice according to Wise, first by the
Greeks, then the Stoics, and then Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas found
that "the imperfect are for the use of the perfect" in keeping with the
order of nature.
Wise repeatedly makes the point that just as the ancient
world regarded slaves (and sometimes women) as personal property, our
own society until recently did so as well. Slaves, like animals were
incapable of reason, intelligence, or any higher-order thinking. Animals
and slaves could be bought, sold, or discarded because they were owned.
More terribly, they could be mistreated without fear of legal
punishment. By the 17th century, however, scientific discoveries put
cracks in the "great chain of being" theory. It became evident that
animals came before man on the planet.
By the 19th century, Darwin changed everything. He
proposed that the earth and its inhabitants came about as a process of
gradual change. The universe was not static, and the structure of all
its creatures was due to constant change and adaptation. Life was
clearly not a ladder. However, western law did not "catch up" to Darwin.
The "great chain" was adapted by Roman law, English common law, and then
American common law, and still resides in our current legal system, says
Wise. What discourages him most is that animals are legally "things" in
This book raises issues that challenge our beliefs: Must
a person be physically able to make a legal claim in order to have one?
Animals cannot speak for themselves; they cannot make a claim for legal
rights and freedom. However, if you ascribe to this belief, then
mentally challenged adults, infants and people who are in a coma or
vegetative state would also be unable to make a claim for rights.
Wise challenges us with this core question: "Are things
or beings or ideas valuable because we value them or because they are
inherently valuable? If non-human animals or humans are valuable only
because we value them, then they must lack value when we don't, and we
must face the fact that Adolph Eichmann, Adolph Hitler and the killing
(Nazi) doctors who did not value many kinds of humans (and "legally"
euthanized the mentally ill, epileptics, the paralyzed) were correct. It
would then follow that the Final Solution, legal in Nazi Germany, was
neither illegal nor unjust." These are chilling words from a legal
scholar who forces us to scrutinize our own beliefs.
Disregard for the living being which does not have legal
rights, Wise says, threatens the disregard for all living beings. He
quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said at the beginning of the Civil War: "In
giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free. "Much of
this book examines the plight of laboratory chimpanzees and bonobos,
creatures so like humans in gene structure that many scientists are now
proposing that they be placed in the genus "Homo" with people. He likens
their inhumane treatment (recorded in many horrific stories throughout
the text) to genocide. Citing the Convention on the Prevention and
Punishment of the Crime of Genocide's definition of the word, we can see
that it can well be applied to this group of living creatures.
Wise teaches animal rights law at the Harvard Law
School, Vermont Law School, and John Marshall Law School. He is a former
president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. From an emotional standpoint
this book is extremely difficult to read. However, Wise manages to amass
an incredible amount of scholarship into a surprisingly easy-to-read
text. His legal explanations are clear and simple, even to a reader with
no background in legal issues and terminology. This is an important
book. It should interest those who are concerned about human rights and
those who are concerned about animal rights.
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Toll Free Numbers Every Companion Animal Guardian Should Not Live
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