Back in 1641, Massachusetts Bay colonists included in their legal code an order that "no man shall exercise any Tirrany or Crueltie towards any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man's use."
Here, in a nutshell, was the guiding principle for humankind's treatment of animals: Be kind, but don't forget that "bruite Creatures" are mainly here to serve us - as food, clothing, entertainment, or involuntary labor. Or as the dictator pig Napoleon was to put it in George Orwell's "Animal Farm" 300 years later, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."
That's pretty much the way things remain today. Many more laws have been passed to protect animals from tyranny and cruelty, but in their direct and formal relations with humans they are seen principally as property.
That is changing, however, in ways that are disrupting - and could be profound. Courses on animal law are being taught at Harvard Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, Rutgers University, and other schools around the US. How animals are treated has become an important issue in international relations, as witnessed by protests at this week's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. And activists are pushing for what would amount to a radically different status for animals - more nearly like humans in terms of civil rights as defined by politics and the law.
Overlapping such legal activities has been the escalation of a kind of guerrilla war that has included fire-bombings of research facilities and meat-processing plants, the "liberation" of animals raised for their fur or flesh, and personal threats against scientists who are said to abuse animals in their studies. It has gotten to the point, FBI Director Louis Freeh told Congress earlier this year, that such activists are counted among "the most recognizable single-issue terrorists" in the United States today.
Whether there's more such activity, or simply more reporting of it, such acts are worrisome to those who work with animals.
"We are concerned that this brand of animal protectionism - or whatever it is - will ultimately lead to serious injury or death," says Patti Strand, national director of the National Animal Interest Alliance. Based in Portland, Ore., NAIA represents pet breeders, medical researchers, rodeo organizers, ranchers, furriers, and others engaged in businesses involving animals.
The most well-known example of what some are calling "ecoterrorism" occurred a year ago when a $12 million arson fire hit a new ski resort in Vail, Colo. The "Earth Liberation Front" claimed responsibility on behalf of the lynx, an endangered species whose habitat was being impacted by the resort.
"It's hard to tell whether there's an actual upswing or not," says a security expert who works for federal government agencies. "But it seems to be the new radical issue du jour on some campuses."
While most animal advocates say they oppose such violence, they also argue that many animals suffer badly at the hands of researchers and commercial interests. Investigative work by journalists as well as activists has produced considerable evidence of mistreatment, some of it gruesome and on film. In any case, says Steve Ann Chambers, president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "The time has come to challenge the notion that animals are things." ALDF is a 20-year old advocacy organization based in Petaluma, Calif.
One major reason for increased challenges to conventional thought: Biologists and others who study animal behavior have marshaled convincing evidence over the last decade that animals are far more than dumb brutes. This is especially true of primates. "Research by Dr. Roger Fouts, Dr. Jane Goodall and other primatologists has demonstrated that chimpanzees are aware, that they experience pain, and have rich mental and social lives," reports the ALDF. "As individuals they are highly intelligent and have well-developed cognitive skills. They express a broad range of emotions previously thought to be limited to humans - joy, sadness, grief, rage, fear, and even a sense of humor. They can reason, plan for the future, make and use tools, be curious and inventive, engage in sophisticated nonverbal communications, and learn over 300 signs in American Sign Language."
"Chimpanzees are our closest biological relatives, sharing 98.4 percent of our DNA.... Similarly, the amount of genetic overlap between humans and gorillas ... is also well above 97 percent," the Animal Legal Defense Fund asserts. "Ironically, this very similarity has caused them to be victims of biomedical research and the entertainment industry."
Such findings "blur the line, once believed to be so sharp, between human animals on the one hand and the rest of the animal kingdom on the other," Dr. Goodall observed last year in a law school journal. Accepting this premise, others say it's not too great a leap to reconsider the moral, ethical, and even legal basis on which animals are treated in human society.
"We now have sufficient information about the capacities of great apes to make it clear that the moral boundary we draw between us and them is indefensible," says Peter Singer, who co-founded the Great Ape Project in 1993. GAP is an international organization whose aim, says Mr. Singer, is to include "all the great apes, human and nonhuman, in the community of equals." And to do that, advocates say, requires changes in the legal system.
"The core reason animals suffer in our society ... is because they do not have the legal standing to be adequately protected under our system of law," says Ms. Chambers.
Others argue that animals (or "nonhuman animals," as activists call them) can never be equated with humans in philosophical or legal terms.
"In many ways their repertory of emotions is quite broad, rivaling that of human beings," says University of Chicago law professor Richard Epstein. "But the fact remains that they do not have the higher capacity for language and thought that characterizes human beings as a species."
What's more, Mr. Epstein writes in a recent issue of National Review magazine, "to raise their status to an asserted parity with human beings ... would pose a mortal threat to society that few human beings will, or should, accept." For one thing, Epstein warns, the whole notion of property rights - something animals could never assert against humans, given the way most of civilization is constructed today - would fall apart.
And yet, even here some changes have been seen. The setting aside of habitat for endangered species - even if it means a loss of property rights to developers and others who extract wealth from nature - has been upheld in the courts. So, too, has the reintroduction of wolves into parts of the northern Rockies, even though this threatens the income of some ranchers.
Pushing for change is a small but highly committed group of scientists and legal advocates. Among them are world-renowned primate researcher Goodall and Boston attorneys Steven Wise and Debra Slater-Wise, directors of the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, in Needham, Mass. The organization's goal is "to achieve fundamental legal rights for nonhuman animals."
"Legal personhood through legislation is unlikely in the United States," says Mr. Wise, who teaches animal law at Harvard and has written a soon-to-be-published book titled "Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals."
"There is hope, however," he writes in the most recent issue of Animal Law, a scholarly journal published by students at the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. "The flexibility and responsiveness of common law makes it the ideal battering ram in the United States and an important weapon in other English-speaking countries to gain legal rights for nonhuman animals."
For advocates on both sides, the essential debate focuses on the distinctions between "animal welfare" and "animal rights." The traditional view is that enlightened humans look after the health and well-being of animals in their care (or possession). The notion that animals have "rights" - especially legal rights - is an entirely different matter, one that many economic interests find threatening.
As Tom Regan, author of "The Case for Animal Rights," puts it: "It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands ... but empty cages; not 'traditional' animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not 'more humane' hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices."
While animal-rights activists see their battle as very much uphill, they can point to some progress.
Just five years ago, cruelty to animals was treated as a misdemeanor in all but a handful of states. Today, 27 states consider animal cruelty to be a felony.
Following a series of demonstrations and boycotts, Procter & Gamble announced earlier this year that it would end animal testing in the development of its beauty, fabric, home care, and paper products. Other major producers of cosmetics and personal-care products, including Colgate-Palmolive, Mary Kay, and Gillette, have ended animal testing as well.
And according to the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, the number of animals used in research has dropped by as much as 50 percent over the past 25 years.
The number of cats used in research has dropped 66 percent since 1967, reports the association, which represents more than 9,000 veterinarians, researchers, animal producers, and others who make use of animals for scientific purposes.
At this point, however, most Americans apparently would find it a great legal (not to mention philosophical) stretch to grant animals the same rights as humans. Some 20 percent donate to animal-welfare organizations, but a large majority - nearly 70 percent, according to some polls - approve of animal research, particularly if it advances medical science.
Like those Massachusetts Bay colonists, we abhor "Tirrany or Crueltie" toward animals. But we still consider them in a different moral or ethical light than ourselves.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society