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Animal Desires

Coming soon to a courtroom near you?

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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When People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) sought a court ruling declaring SeaWorld’s killer whales “slaves” under the 13th Amendment, the nation got a badly needed chuckle. PETA argued that because the amendment doesn’t specify that its terms apply only to human beings—“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude .  .  . shall exist within the United States”—then captive whales can be slaves too.

The case—Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka, and Ulises, five orcas et al. v. SeaWorld—was brought in the Ninth Circuit, where history shows anything can happen. But not this time. District Court judge Jeffrey T. Miller made short work of PETA’s publicity stunt, ruling sensibly:

Both historic and contemporary sources reveal that the terms “slavery” and “involuntary servitude” refer only to persons. In 1864, the term “slavery” was defined as “[t] he condition of a slave; the state of entire subjection of one person to the will of another.” .  .  . The clear language and historical context reveal that only human beings, or persons, are afforded the protection of the 13th Amendment.

In other words, since humans are, and animals aren’t, persons, case dismissed!

But don’t imagine the story will end there. For years, animal rights activists have been preparing the intellectual ground to overcome the “animals aren’t persons” legal impediment to their goal of allowing animals to sue their owners—a concept known as “animal standing”—by which they plan to destroy animal industries and eventually end all domestication of animals. They know that no legislature will pass laws elevating even the most intelligent animals to the status of persons. So they plan to file multitudinous lawsuits, hoping judges will bootstrap animals into the moral community.

It has already started. The European Court of Human Rights agreed in 2008 to hear the appeal of an Austrian Supreme Court ruling denying personhood to a chimp. More such cases could soon be filed in the United States. Law professor and animal rights activist Steven Wise was quoted in the New York Times recently promising to file lawsuits starting in 2013 with the goal of using “the latest science to help persuade state court judges that such creatures as whales and chimpanzees should be accorded common law personhood and rights.” 

Wise runs the Nonhuman Rights Project, where, since 2007, he and 50 other activists have busily researched the most likely jurisdictions for a ruling that at least one animal “has the capacity to possess at least one legal right.” It would be easy to roll one’s eyes and dismiss this as simply what radical lawyers do, to little effect. That would be a mistake. “Animal personhood” has become a respected idea in philosophy, the life sciences, the academy generally, and among some within the highly politicized science establishment. 

Earlier this year, for example, the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted a panel supporting the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans, which in the name of promoting “equal treatment of all persons” affirms that all whales and dolphins are persons possessing “the right to life, liberty, and wellbeing.” The AAAS’s promotional blurb argued that “whales and dolphins are capable of advanced cognitive abilities (such as problem solving, artificial ‘language’ comprehension, and complex social behavior),” purportedly providing a “scientific rationale” for supporting the declaration. 

Nonhuman persons? On what basis? Animal rights lawyers claim that the precedent for expanding personhood beyond human beings was established when the United States legally recognized corporations as “artificial persons.” But that is sophistry. These juridical entities may not be human beings, but they are human associations, and thus corporate personhood is still about us. Even though the left derided Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney for stating that “corporations are people,” he was actually far more right than his detractors. 

But forget logic. We live in ideologically antihuman times, and animal personhood furthers that agenda. Indeed, “breaking the species barrier” for personhood would open a new misanthropic chapter in human history, aiming us not only toward granting unwarranted rights to higher mammals—none of which understands the concept or is capable of respecting the rights of other animals or humans—but also to flora and fauna generally. 

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