Animal rights: the great debate

I heard a radio interview recently with a man who trains rescue dogs. These animals sniff out survivors buried beneath rubble caused by earthquakes, such as the one in Turkey, as well as other disasters.

The dogs are trained, he said, to think of every trapped victim as a friend and playmate. They can't wait to get to the next rescue.

I was impressed with this latest example of dogs' teachableness and affection, which jibes with qualities in dogs I've known.

Canines, among other creatures seem to have grown in our estimation over the last few decades. We write pets into our wills, seek costly medical treatment for sick animals, and contribute large sums to animal welfare groups. We buy "cruelty-free" cosmetics and fake fur.

I like to think the human race is evolving in its view of animals. The traditional notion of animals as lesser beings, without thoughts and feelings, has been directly challenged, not just by animal activists but by scientists and researchers.

Even heavy-handed methods of training - such as the "breaking" of horses - are being rejected for more enlightened approaches. (Think of Nicholas Evans's "The Horse Whisperer.")

But I was troubled by a recent Page 1 article in a big metro daily. It pointed to an emerging legal field known as "animal law." The lawyers quoted had the laudable goal of trying to improve the status of animals. Instead of animals as property, they argue, animals have inherent rights as sentient beings.

Animals are legally powerless and dependent on the goodwill of advocates. Most of us abhor the idea of animals being used in medical and scientific labs. We write letters to the North and South Korean governments to protest the practice of eating dog. We sign petitions against whale-watching fleets that go too close to the animals. And many of us have become accustomed to cooking non-meat dishes for our vegetarian friends.

But "animal law" raises some touchy issues. Is society prepared for animals to have legal rights, when up to now they've been considered as property?

Some people in the animal-rights movement have long held that animals, especially primates, should be guaranteed the same rights to "bodily integrity and liberty" as human beings. With animals unable to speak for themselves, humans would have to take up their cause.

Scientists say that primates are humans' closest biological relatives (chimpanzees, according to genetic researchers, share 98.4 percent of human DNA). So does this mean that baboons and orangutans should receive legal status ahead of lions and alligators?

Perhaps most troubling is that, by granting animals legal standing, we guarantee more lawsuits. One case, decided last year by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, allowed a zoo visitor to sue the facility in order to provide companionship for a male monkey.

While institutions should be held liable for unhealthy conditions, reasonable people might wonder, Is it too much to ask that a zoo provide for the emotional needs of animals?

The Animal Legal Defense Fund's Web site claims a network of more than 700 attorneys who will work on animal cases. Several American law schools offer classes in animal law.

As the newspaper article noted, some experts see the field as potentially profitable.

Therein lies my discomfort with the idea: A whole new branch of law to be exploited.

So the question becomes: Are we evolving toward a greater appreciation for all life, or devolving into a nasty, squabbling, litigious society?

And does that really help animals?

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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