The Shifting Frontiers of Animal Rights: Activists Yawn as Animals Lurch toward a Hybrid Future

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SOMETIME AFTER the 14-year-old retired actor and chimpanzee Travis Herold was shot and beheaded by Stamford, Connecticut, police in connection with an aggravated assault against 55-year-old Charla Nash, but before former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick finished serving a federal prison sentence for conspiring to violate the civil rights of dogs, South Korean scientists announced the birth of a beagle that glows in the dark.

Ruppy the ruby puppy is a transgenic animal whose belly and paws glow under ultraviolet light thanks to genetic code from sea anemones. A team led by Seoul National University scientist Lee Byeong-chun created the animal by using a virus to insert fluorescent genes into the nucleus of a dog fibroblast cell. The researchers then removed the nucleus from another dog's egg cell and implanted the fibroblast's fluorescence-enriched nucleus into it. The new organism began life as an embryo in a Petri dish before being inserted into a surrogate mother. After several false starts, Ruppy and her littermates grew to term and were successfully delivered. The glowing beagles have now reached spawning age.

The most striking thing about Ruppy is how little attention she attracted from animal rights activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made no comment. Nor did the Humane Society, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or such beast-friendly philosophers as Peter Singer and Matthew Scully. What objections did come were infused with sarcastic Weltschmerz rather than outrage. "Now those women who insist on being impregnated even though their bodies clearly do not believe they should be ... can potentially become pregnant more easily because of poor glowing puppies," wrote the blogger Vegan Verve.

You might attribute the blase activist reaction to the built-in ethical dilemmas of Ruppy's case. To argue that the scientists have mistreated these dogs you'd need to establish that the beasts would have been better off not existing in the first place. The concept of wrongful life has actually been litigated in the court of human behavior, with mixed results.

In 2000 France's highest court granted malpractice damages to the family of 17-year-old Nicolas Perruche, who was born with mental handicaps related to his mother's having contracted rubella during her pregnancy. Perruche and his family argued that had the mother been correctly diagnosed, she would have aborted the child. Effectively, the question of wrongful birth has been given legal weight not only in France (where suits like Perruche's were subsequently outlawed) but also in the United States. In 2003 a New Jersey obstetrician-gynecologist paid a $1.2 million settlement to a family after failing to diagnose "Fragile X syndrome" a form of mental retardation caused by a defective gene on the X chromosome.

Do animals have any legal recourse against human beings ? Elizabeth Hess' wonderful 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human describes the terrible dislocation of an ape. The title character is a chimp who was raised ha a series of foster homes from 1973 to 2000 and taught American Sign Language in a now-forgotten behaviorist effort to discredit the theory advanced by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky that there is a universal, specifically human grammar. …