Speak of The Week: Should Animals Have the Same Rights as Humans?

A court in New York is hearing a case asking for an elephant to be considered a legal person. It has been filed by animal rights organization Nonhuman Rights Project, which has said that 51-year-old Asian elephant Happy has been detained unlawfully at the Bronx Zoo and should be sent to an elephant sanctuary, according to The Washington Post.

The animal rights group has filed a habeas corpus petition, which is typically used to determine whether a person’s detention is lawful.

The decision depends on whether Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, considers Happy a person.

“The elephant is being imprisoned against her will,” said lawyer Steven Wise, who is representing Happy, was quoted as saying by The Wall Street Journal.  “For more than 40 years she has been kept as a prisoner.”

Nonhuman Rights Project said that Happy “is an autonomous and cognitively complex animal entitled to the same right of protection against unlawful imprisonment that people have”.

But the zoo argues that Happy is well cared-for and her detention is not illegal.

For many, the very idea of nonhuman personhood is seen as silly. Others argue that human rights come with societal responsibilities, such as paying taxes and obeying laws, that no nonhuman could ever meet. Still others feel that current animal-protection statutes offer sufficient security without all the legal and philosophical headaches inherent in extending human rights to another species. So Should animals have the same rights as people?

What is Speciesism?

Speciesism is a form of discrimination against animals by humans, stemming from the presumption that human beings are superior to all other species on earth. It involves treating non-human animals differently to human beings purely because they are not human.

Animal right advocates argue that it is speciesist not to allow certain animals such as chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants to be persons under the law. They argue that it is unfair and discriminatory to exclude non-human animals from the category of legal persons simply because they are not human beings.

The basis of their argument is that if these animals have the same capacities that entitle humans to be legal persons, then they should also be included within that category.

Many see Animals as Property. Is this a Problem?

Animals are human property under the law. Some people argue that this can be positive for animal protection, as it gives human owners an incentive to protect animals better as they have a personal interest in their safety and welfare. However, others argue that this is problematic, as classifying animals as property means that they do not have legal rights. They argue that we need to change the legal status of animals in society.

Should Animals Be Granted Rights?

Animal rights advocates argue that certain animals, such as chimpanzees, possess a variety of capacities that entitle them to rights. For example, chimpanzees are aware of themselves, understand the concept of the ‘past’, can look forward to future events, and make informed decisions. Many believe that these capacities should entitle chimpanzees to claim certain rights, such as the right to ‘bodily liberty’. This would mean that they would have the legal right not to be unlawfully imprisoned.
If they had this right, lawyers could act on their behalf if they were being held captive in houses, zoos and research facilities.

Animal cases through time

  • 1266: In the earliest extant record of an animal trial – a pig was executed in Fontenay-aux-Roses
  • 1654: English Civil War leader Oliver Cromwell bans cockfighting, dog fighting, bull baiting and bull running. The law was later overturned
  • 1981: The first US conviction for animal abuse against an experimental laboratory is achieved, after an undercover investigation by animal rights activists 
  • 1992: Switzerland amends its constitution to recognise animals as beings and not things
  • 1993: Release of The Hour of the Pig. The film, set in 15th Century France, depicts the life of lawyer Bartholomew Chassenee who represented animals accused of crimes 
  • 1999: New Zealand grants basic rights to five great ape species, banning their use in research, testing or teaching. This is considered the greatest legal success in the history of animal rights 
  • 2002: Germany amends its constitution to guarantee rights for animals, becoming the first EU country to do so
  • 2015: A New York court considers whether chimps are legal persons
  • 2022: Court NY weighing whether elephant at Bronx Zoo has human rights

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