United Poultry Concerns
Last weekend’s Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale, reveals the growing support among ethicists, lawyers, scientists and others for changing the status of nonhuman animals from one of legal thinghood, with no rights, to a status of personhood with a capacity for legal rights.
This report Experts Gather at Yale to Discuss Whether Animals Are People by conference speaker George Dvorsky on last weekend’s Personhood Beyond the Human conference at Yale, reveals the growing support among ethicists, lawyers, scientists and others for changing the status of nonhuman animals from one of legal thinghood, with no rights, to a status of personhood with a capacity for legal rights. The Nonhuman Rights Project, founded by attorney Steven Wise, who spoke at the conference, is breaking the ground on legal rights for nonhuman animals, for whom, he says, “The passage from thing to person constitutes a legal transubstantiation.”
While nonhuman primates were the focus of the conference, reflecting the Nonhuman Rights Project’s lawsuits on behalf of chimpanzees, as a speaker I seized the opportunity to shine a light on chickens in my Sunday, Dec. 8 presentation, “The Provocative Elitism of ‘Personhood’ for Nonhuman Creatures in Animal Advocacy Parlance and Polemics.” A summary of my talk and others’ talks can be read here.
Since a criterion for “personhood” is often cited as a nonhuman animal’s demonstration of self-recognition in a mirror and related signs of self-awareness, I read aloud the following excerpt from my essay The Social Life of Chickens which I distributed to the audience:
Chickens in my experience have a core identity and sense of themselves as chickens. An example is a chick I named Fred, sole survivor of a classroom hatching project in which embryos were mechanically incubated. Fred was so large, loud and demanding from the moment he set foot in our kitchen, I assumed he’d grow up to be a rooster. He raced up and down the hallway, hopped up on my shoulder, leapt to the top of my head, ran across my back, down my arm and onto the floor when I was at the computer, and was generally what you’d call “pushy,” but adorably so. I remember one day putting Fred outdoors in an enclosure with a few adult hens on the ground, and he flew straight up the tree to a branch, peeping loudly, apparently wanting no part of them.
“Fred” grew into a lustrously beautiful black hen whom I renamed Freddaflower. Often we’d sit on the sofa together at night while I watched television or read. Even by herself, Freddaflower liked to perch on the arm of the sofa in front of the TV when it was on, suggesting she liked to be there because it was our special place. She ran up and down the stairs to the second floor as she pleased, and often I would find her in the guestroom standing prettily in front of the full-length mirror preening her feathers and observing herself. She appeared to be fully aware that it was she herself she was looking at in the mirror. I’d say to her, “Look, Freddaflower - that’s you! Look how pretty you are!” And she seemed already to know that.
Freddaflower loved for me to hold her and pet her. She demanded to be picked up. She would close her eyes and purr while I stroked her feathers and kissed her face. From time to time, I placed her outside in the chicken yard, and sometimes she ventured out on her own, but she always came back. Eventually I noticed she was returning to me less and less, and for shorter periods. One night she elected to remain in the chicken house with the flock. From then on until she died of ovarian cancer in my arms two years later, Freddaflower expressed her ambivalence of wanting to be with me but also wanting to be with the other hens, to socialize and nest with them and participate in their world and the reliving of ancestral experiences that she carried within herself.
Liqin Cao and Freddaflower
An article about the conference in The New York Times, “Considering the Humanity of Nonhumans,” Dec. 9, quotes another attorney on the Nonhuman Rights Project and the prospect of consideration of personhood in chickens or rats.
And another opinion:
The Nonhuman Rights Project’s vision is radical, and one that most legal observers consider unlikely to succeed in the near future. Jonathan Lovvorn, senior litigator at the Humane Society of the United States, says the Nonhuman Rights Project arguments are academically powerful but ‘just not feasible’ as a legal strategy.
It’s simply too much to ask of a judge, especially at
the trial level, said Lovvorn in WIRED’s in-depth analysis of the lawsuits.
Judges might be reluctant to consider claims that might invite consideration
of personhood in chickens or rats. They might just feel, in a primal,
gut-level way, that legal rights are for humans.
Imagine if such defeatist views had prevailed during the Civil Rights and
Suffragist Movements in the 20th century and the Gay Rights Movement in the
21st. Fortunately, they did not.
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