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2 June 2002
Animal Rights Issue Sparks Important Text

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, too.

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 Greece.

"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 our society.

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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