Animal Rights and Wrongs

Two events are happening this month that capture, in one case, what is right about animal advocacy today and, in the other, what is wrong.

For the first time ever, today, December 2nd, an animal rights organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project, has gone to court on behalf of a nonhuman animal, asking a judge to recognize him as a “legal person” who has the fundamental right to bodily liberty.

Later this month, the 2013 Biennial Marine Mammal Conference in New Zealand and the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) Ethics Committee will be hosting a special session on the humane killing of marine mammals. The committee states that these are “complex technical, ethical and cultural issues” and there will be an expert panel with the capacity to represent a diversity of viewpoints.

One of these two events represents a potentially transformative effort towards actual enforceable rights for nonhuman beings, and the other represents a fall back to the ethical muck and mire and perpetuation of nonhuman animals as commodities.

One effort says that there is no question about the fundamental nature of nonhuman beings as individuals with a right to live their lives autonomously. The other continues to equivocate on this question, suggesting there is some room for differing viewpoints on the issue of whether marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, even have a right to life.

The fact that the words “ethical” and “killing” can even be spoken in the same breath about marine mammals reinforces how sorely we need enforceable rights for them.

The fact that the words “ethical” and “killing” can even be spoken in the same breath about marine mammals reinforces how sorely we need enforceable rights for them.

Precisely because the premier marine mammal organization in the world thinks it is worthwhile to spend time considering how to kill marine mammals is why we need enforceable rights for them.

By conceding that there is such a thing as “humane” killing of marine mammals and that this issue is “sensitive”, the SMM undermines any credibility it might have as an organization that takes the science of marine mammal intelligence seriously. If it actually did, then the very notion of killing autonomous individuals who have a sense of self, can think about their own thoughts, possess sophisticated memory and communicative capacities, and, in their own habitats, develop varied cultures, would be unthinkable.

The SMM continues to hide in the conservative shadow land of concepts like “management” and “conservation” with no acknowledgement of the individuality and inherent value of the nonhuman beings in their purview. I understand why the SMM, as a global organization, takes the tactic of incrementalism, careful not to offend any of its constituents. It is what an organization does when it has become the reason for its own existence.

But none of the marine mammals being killed every year in Taiji, Japan or in the Faroe Islands, or in captivity can afford the time it takes for the long, slow creep of “progress” defined by the SMM and other organizations who refuse to take a real stand.

Thankfully there are some efforts, like the Nonhuman Rights Project, that represent the vanguard of animal advocacy and recognize the parity across all rights issues – human and nonhuman.

Martin Luther King said: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Here’s hoping for more animal rights and fewer animal wrongs in 2014.

Kimmela Delivers the Science to the Nonhuman Rights Project

The Kimmela Center has joined with the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) to work toward the common goal of gaining basic rights for animals. The Nonhuman Rights Project, led by prominent animal rights attorney Steven Wise, is working to change the common law status of large-brained, socially complex nonhuman animals from legal “things” or “property” to “persons”, for whom fundamental rights like the right to bodily liberty and bodily integrity are not yet recognized.

Nonhuman animals need to be recognized as having certain fundamental rights, and these can only be enforced through a transformation in the eyes of the law from “property” to “persons”. As a legal person, a nonhuman being’s basic rights would be protected, and if the NhRP is successful it will be a real game-changer in our relationship to other animals.

This work will demonstrate that these animals have the cognitive characteristics that qualify them for common law personhood.

As the NhRP’s Science Director, Kimmela Executive Director Lori Marino has recruited a sizeable team to gather the scientific evidence the NhRP will need to bring its cases in 2013. The international science team is comprised of a group of volunteers ranging from students to librarians to university faculty members who have expertise in the fields of animal behavior and intelligence and online databases. The team is conducting a massive online search of all the relevant, peer-reviewed, scientific research on cognition (i.e., intelligence, self-awareness, emotion, social complexity, and brain size and complexity) in species that are under consideration for NhRP cases. These include the great apes, several cetacean species, and elephants. This work will allow the legal team to demonstrate that these animals have the cognitive characteristics that qualify them for common law personhood.

The research base will also comprise the basis for educational outreach initiatives to professionals and students, media and the general public about the cognitive abilities of these animals.

The first phase of their work – searching and archiving all the scientific papers available – will be completed by the end of December. The materials will then be compiled into a searchable bibliographic database that the legal team can access easily as they prepare to go to trial.

We will keep you posted on the NhRP Science Team’s efforts and accomplishments.

By this time next year we may be close to the day when a dolphin or chimpanzee cannot be owned, held captive, or harmed.