The 1970s heralded a revolution in the legal status of animals. PETA, established in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1974, advocated vegetarianism and various boycotts with the slogan “Animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment, or abuse in any other way.” Along a parallel track, in 1975, the nations of the world implemented the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to protect endangered wildlife from commercial exploitation. Soon, behind the scenes animal rights activists adopted a fundamentally new strategy — they turned to seeking legal reclassification of animals from “things” to “persons.” This fundamental shift has ramifications not just for abuse/neglect cases, but also for animal ownership/companionship and related industries like animal husbandry and feed and supplies.
The world’s major religious traditions expressly provide for humane treatment of animals so animal rights often has immediate philosophic and sympathetic appeal, without consideration of the new legal revolution for which it stands. Who objects, after all, to increased prosecution of neglect or abuse cases, improved habitats for zoo animals, or humane treatment of laboratory animals? Who does not take pride in championing such causes? Animal rights activism is a handy, relatively inexpensive, low-risk first political cause for many youth to support. With quasi-religious devotional practices like vegetarianism/veganism, online petitions for signature, and boycotts, the cause of animal rights can raise zeal, ardor, even a deaf extremism. In the age of social media, signing petitions in support of animal rights initiatives is often a ticket to community inclusion. Ergo, organizations such as PETA, with a staff of approximately 400 and a claimed membership of around 6.5 million, can readily mobilize an army to exert political and economic pressure.
But is the all or nothing approach of “thing” versus “person” really where society should head?
Wikipedia defines animal rights as ” the idea in which some, or all, non-human animals are entitled to the possession of their own lives and that their most basic interests—such as the need to avoid suffering—should be afforded the same consideration as similar interests of human beings.” [Italics added for emphasis.]
Western Civilization envisions rights as “natural”, stemming from a hypothetical John Locke set out during the Enlightenment: two “natural”–i.e., rational — humans face off in a forest over ownership of fallen game. Equally matched, each risks losing life and limb in event of a fight, which is counter-productive to the task of survival sustenance. These idealized rational people arbitrage risk by submitting the case to a third-party judge. This submission is considered entry into “the social contract.” The social contract, thus, is a threshold, an initial qualification from which other rights flow. The Enlightenment ideal implicitly rides the shoulders of the Judeo-Christian tradition: personality indicates “mind,” the presence of that spark of intelligence that historically justified setting humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. From the perspective of intellectual history, the term animal rights is oxymoronic.
To those opposed to animal rights, animals do not have sufficient rationality, independence or self-determination to enter into a social contract. Clearly, the proposed reclassification would shatter the comfortable world of companion animal “ownership,” as ownership of persons is by definition “slavery.” In fact, this reclassification effort parallels the reclassification of Black Americans from “chattel” to “person” which banned slavery in the United States in the 19th century. More recently, the Supreme Court granted corporations “personality,” and thereby destabilized the United States political scene with an immediate surge of corporate campaign contributions.
How important are our symbiotic companion animal relationships? Symbiotic inter-species interaction has physiological impact as well as emotional. Petting a companion animal reduces blood pressure; keeping a companion bird, who can see in ultraviolet light where humans cannot, can increase awareness, inquisitiveness and even knowledge of the world around us. These relationships are mutually beneficial, but how would these work out legally? Sadly, outright “personality” would end animal companionship. From the business standpoint, such a definition in conservation certainly would not be tolerated: Consider the Trump Administration’s recent decision to cease prosecuting corporations under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) for such “incidental deaths” as those of bats and birds running afoul of power-generating windmills. If birds were “persons”, this would be tantamount to foregoing manslaughter prosecutions!
Political agendas always have fallout — collateral damage — which, from a utilitarian standpoint, marks a reduction in society’s well-being. Boycotts destabilize markets, risk jobs and entire industries, reduce consumption and haunt with the specter of recession. Animal rights activism in general has negative fallout for animal husbandry industries. Sadly, the ardour of such activists waxes too hot: they remain willfully ignorant of the simple truth that breeders have unique value in their expertise and specialized knowledge. With birds that is especially true as that is over 350 different species!
Consider the case of a large-scale animal rescue operation. Who has the quarantine facilities to handle the intake? More than once in my experience it was a kindly local breeder who provided her quarantine facilities for the bulk of the rescued animals. Yet breeders live in constant fear of animal rights activists stealing their stock and abusing it.
Consider the animal rights activist who cleaned out a show-rabbit breeder in New Mexico. Pedigreed animals carefully matched for trait and hereditary reasons in a proper breeding program were removed from their pens and willy-nilly dumped together in larger pens. Unplanned and unrecorded matings occurred in the mixed pens, resulting both in in-breeding and ill-advised pregnancies of immature females. The animal rights activist’s theft created a yet larger rescue emergency as the constantly reproducing herd created a safety and sanitation hazard. Sadly, the animal rescues on-scene neutered all rabbits rather than returning the tattooed, pedigreed rabbits to their rightful owner. (Please explain to me how neutering an animal does not totally invade and violate their personhood? Neutering renders rabbits behaviorally more manageable as pets; in this practice animal rights activists directly contradict their own philosophy of personality; even courts don’t castrate criminals).
The legal trend in our century is to “go with the flow” on granting personhood. For instance, in 2010 the Supreme Court even recognized corporations as “persons”. Thus, by shirt-tailing personality in law, animal rights activists are likely to succeed in gaining the reclassification. As in the above botched rescue, that success may overall diminish domestic animal and social welfare. Taken personality as a given, how should the opposition trouble-shoot the future in favor of responsible animal husbandry and symbiotic companion animal relationships?
Once the legal system recognizes animals as having personality, other legal analogies such as guardianship, conservatorship. and minority likely will mediate the space left by the obvious that while animals may have “personality” they do not have it to the full extent of a mature human citizen. Already in family court this occurs as divorce proceedings resolve companion animal custody and visitation issues. However, these analogies have limited value: while they may address issues in the symbiotic relationship of animal companionship, they don’t generalize well to conservation discussions.
Exotic parrots, at the juncture of a rise in companion animal market demand and endangered species status, canaries in the coalmine of global warming with their shifting migrations, demand a more innovative response, one that provides an identical footing for both domestic and wild/conservation contexts or else one that coordinates separate definitions in the wild and domestic contexts through a definition of domestication.
The 20th and 21st centuries have experienced a major paradigm shift regarding the relationship of humanity to its environment. The interrelationships of ecosystem inhabitants determine equilibrium. Empirically this suggests the legal system should weigh rights based on contributions to equilibrium.
The legal concept “person” has Judeo-Christian correlates: to have personality is to have “mind” and to be made in the image of God. Not only do rights abound upon reaching equivalency with humanity, in this view, the rights come with associated duties and obligations. But it’s an all-or-nothing approach with later developments of guardianship and minority as a means, belatedly, of fine-tuning to reality.
One could look to the history of science for a parallel. The Judeo-Christian worldview has always been anthropocentric. At one point the Roman Catholic church insisted on reinforcing the anthropocentric with an geocentric astronomy, the Ptolemaic system. Astronomers had to perform mathematical gymnastics to reconcile projected and actual observations. But then Copernicus cut through the mass of messy equations by placing the sun at the center of our planetary system, for which act he was excommunicated from the Roman church.
When we examine our symbiotic relationships with animals in the domestic setting, animals in their adaptation to a human-dominant habitat appear not unlike children in their gradual subordination of instinct in favor of positively reinforced decision-making. They do, in fact, display some degree of self-determination. For instance, as reported by Animal Diversity, after training, the African grey parrot Alex exhibited intelligence akin to that of some marine mammals and non-human primates, at a level between that of a four- or six-year-old. A wild animal similarly inherits some traits but learns specific behavior, in the case of birds, through imprinted identity followed by positive reinforcement. In the smaller context of the household, animals do in fact, take on corresponding duties and functionalities: a dog fetches the morning newspaper for his crippled, elderly owner; a cat uses its litter pan for the privilege of a soft indoor bed; a rabbit allows petting so its owner can reduce stress after work; a bird helps its owner by free-flight performance retrieving dollar bills from awed onlookers.
Why shouldn’t there be a common basis for deriving an animal’s rights and human’s rights across both wild and domestic contexts so the law would not have to add so many qualifications ex post facto? Such a system would assign rights in correspondence with duties or contributions to habitat or ecosystem equilibrium. In this way learning from imprinting in the wild could be considered on the same footing as adapting to households.
Such an achievement would be far harder in today’s legal system than personhood for animals, but it is a worthy goal.