Rights from Wrongs: A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals Is Gathering Force. (Cover Story)

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, March-April 2003 | Go to article overview

Rights from Wrongs: A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals Is Gathering Force. (Cover Story)


Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine


Does a pig packed in a tiny factory cage waiting to be killed have any rights in America? Should it have? And what about the chimpanzee, which shares 99 percent of its active DNA with humans? Should anyone be allowed to "own" an animal with so many of our own attributes, including the ability, to reason, use tools and respond to language? Isn't that like slavery?

The fight to give animals legal rights barely registers on the environmental agenda, but perhaps it should. This isn't simply an endless philosophical debate but a gathering global force with broad implications for our planet's future, including how we use our natural resources. If animals had rights, we probably couldn't continue to eat them, experiment on them with impunity or wear their skins on our backs. Our fundamental relationship would change.

But precisely because our way of life depends on exploiting them, animals don't really have any significant "rights" in America, although Congress passed the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (which requires simply that animals be "rendered insensitive to pain" before being killed) in 1958 and the Animal Welfare Act (which sets limited standards for humane care but exempts small laboratory animals) in 1966. All states afford animals some small measure of protection through anti-cruelty laws, but these laws have nothing to say about an animal's "right" not to be slaughtered, or used for any number of human purposes.

In 2003, however, a new and growing movement is trying to afford some genuine legal rights for animals. Buoyed by a growing awareness about animal intelligence and capacities, the courts, state governments--and the general public in statewide referenda--are enacting and enforcing new legislation.

Animal rights are back on the agenda, at least partly due to the release of the new book Dominion by an unlikely author, White House speechwriter Matthew Scully. The book might have gotten some attention even if the writer came from the ranks of known animal sympathizers, but the fact that Scully is a self-described conservative and a Bush insider got it widely reviewed and discussed. Scully describes the Animal Welfare Act as "a collection of hollow injunctions, broad loopholes and light penalties when there are any at all." Animals, writes Scully, are "a test of our character, of mankind's capacity for empathy and for decent, honorable conduct and faithful stewardship."

The stewardship concept has a long history. Legal prohibitions against cruelty to animals in the U.S. date back as far as the Massachusetts Bay Colony's 1641 "Bodies of Liberties" ("No man shall exercise any Tirranny or Crueltie towards any Bruite creature which are usuallie kept for man's use," it said). But the use of the phrase "man's use" is telling--the statutes have always been limited to preventing "unnecessary" or "unjustified" pain, which leaves the laws subject to broad differences in judicial interpretation. But killing animals for food, sport, clothing or for scientific research has almost always been upheld by the law.

In 37 states, cruelty to animals is now a felony, and four new laws were enacted in 2002. Concerned Floridians succeeded last November in passing a constitutional amendment on the inhumane treatment of "factory farm" pigs. Also before voters in November: a ban on cockfighting in Oklahoma (it passed), a plan to issue special license plates to pay for spaying and neutering of pets in Georgia (it also passed) and a ban on animal cruelty in Arkansas (it was defeated).

In Europe, Germany has amended its national constitution to protect "the natural foundations of life" for people and animals. In 1992, Switzerland acknowledged that animals were "beings" through a constitutional amendment. In 2000, the High Court of Kerala in India handed down an opinion that states, "It is not only our fundamental duty to show compassion to our animal friends, but also to recognize and protect their rights . …

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Rights from Wrongs: A Movement to Grant Legal Protection to Animals Is Gathering Force. (Cover Story)
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