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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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Again, don’t laugh. “Nature rights” is already the law of Ecuador and Bolivia, and a proposal was made at Durban in November 2011 to include the “rights of nature” in the draft climate change treaty. Not only that, but Pittsburgh and Santa Monica and more than 20 other American municipalities have passed ordinances granting nature a quasi-right to life by recognizing “the rights of people, natural communities, and ecosystems to exist, regenerate, and flourish.” And anyone who believes Mother Nature’s rights are being violated can sue on her behalf. 

Then there is transhumanism—a neo-eugenic, futuristic social movement that is allied with animal rightists in the effort to demolish human exceptionalism and extend legal personhood to non-Homo sapiens—in their case, to make room for forthcoming “posthumans” in the moral community. These will include machines that supposedly will achieve the indicia of personhood through self-evolving software, or shades of the popular science fiction TV program Battlestar Galactica, after posthumans upload their consciousnesses into cyborgs. 

Sentient machines will almost surely never exist. But animal personhood is a real and present threat. Indeed, as Wise has written, it would only take one judge ambitious to make history to open the floodgates of litigation, first demanding inclusion of ever more animals in legal personhood, and from there, granting those animal persons standing to sue their owners for violations of their fundamental rights.

The lawyers who would take those cases are ready and waiting for the judicial go-ahead, their legal briefs already written. For years, professors have been busily training students in animal law courses and seminars at more than 100 of America’s top law schools, preparing an army of legal minds for the day they can represent whales, dolphins, chimps, elephants, pigs, and other animal “clients” in court. 

Indeed, if animals are declared persons, PETA could have the last laugh helping whales petition for a writ of habeas corpus demanding their liberty from SeaWorld. In 2005, a Brazilian judge agreed to hear just such a petition on behalf of Suica, a chimpanzee, only to see the case mooted when the animal died before a decision had been rendered. “Criminal procedural law is not static,” the judge wrote in the order of dismissal, “rather [it is] subject to constant changes, and new decisions have to adapt to new times.” As Wise says, it only takes one.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.

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