Don't slander your parrot

Attorney argues that to give animals' legal rights is not barking mad

The National Zoo generated some unintended laughs in May when it argued that publicly releasing a giraffe's medical records would violate the animal's privacy. But in "Drawing the Line," attorney Steven Wise makes the case for granting even more fundamental legal rights to an ark full of animals.

In his first book, "Rattling the Cage" (2000), Wise, who has built a career protecting animals in court, argued that chimpanzees deserve legal personhood. This time, he sets out to determine whether animals ranging from dolphins to his family dog also have mental abilities meriting protection. It won't take long to understand where Wise stands on how we treat animals. He compares their "imprisonment" by humans to slavery and writes about his subjects as people.

Chapters are named for the animal discussed. There's Echo the elephant, Koko the gorilla, and Alex the parrot. For comparison's sake, he starts off with his own four-year-old son, Christopher. Only the honeybees remain anonymous.

The key to granting any of them rights, Wise argues, is whether they possess "practical autonomy" – desires and the ability to act to satisfy them. Can they recognize themselves in a mirror, understand symbols, communicate with some sophistication, or solve complex problems?

Wise presents a sampling of their behavior that suggests human-like awareness. He supplements decades of studies by behavioral scientists with his own field trips to zoos throughout the US and natural habitats as distant as the mountains of Uganda.

Honeybees tell each other where food or waxy materials are located by waggle dancing; dolphins can learn syntax and have impressive memories.

At times, his rambling descriptions grow repetitive. The same analogy involving holding your breath for a second to represent millions of years is used over and over again to help explain how long ago each animal deviated from humans on the evolutionary tree.

Too much space is given to meandering discussions of social scientists' theories or conversations with scientists he meets in exotic locations. He's a creative legal thinker but not much of a travel writer.

Only in the last couple of paragraphs of each chapter does Wise finally summarize the animal's cognitive abilities. He rates each animal's autonomy from zero to one (equivalent to a human). Animals above 0.9, he argues, have a self-consciousness meriting rights to bodily integrity and bodily liberty.

These seemingly exact figures give a false degree of certainty and scientific validity. Why does a honeybee deserve a 0.59 versus a 0.6 or 0.58? Dog lovers beware: Alex the parrot finishes well ahead of Wise's family mutt.

Few have devoted as much time and energy as Wise to advocating animal rights. He taught Harvard Law School's first course on the subject and then wound up suspended from practicing law in Massachusetts for several months as a result of a disputed fee for representing a Texas animal sanctuary.

He admits his cause faces high obstacles. Each year, he says, some 10 billion animals are killed for food, and tens of millions more for research, hunting, and manufacturing.

Most problematic are the practical details left unaddressed. Having concluded here that at least some of these animals have autonomy meriting protection, Wise doesn't specify what types of legal rights the animals deserve. The line he draws regarding specific rights isn't very clear.

He talks vaguely about basic liberty or dignity rights that might include immunity from enslavement and torture. But even assuming the animals deserve protection, who will assert these rights on the animals' behalf?

It may all sound pretty far-fetched and impractical. Then again, just as Wise's book was released, the lower house of Germany's parliament voted to guarantee some rights to animals in its constitution. Perhaps that giraffe in Washington's zoo will yet have his day in court, too.

• Seth Stern is on the Monitor's staff.

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