The media have finally awakened to an important case pending before the New York Court of Appeals — that state’s highest court — that could upend the moral relationship between humans and animals. Indeed, if the plaintiffs prevail, an elephant named Happy will be declared to be a “who” — instead of a “what” — and found to be entitled to the same “rights” as any human being.
The litigation involves an Asian elephant that has resided at the Bronx Zoo for more than 40 years. An animal-rights activist group, the NonHuman Rights Project, sued for a writ of habeas corpus — listing Happy as a litigant — on the basis that she is an autonomous and cognitively complex “person” entitled to bodily liberty and that her confinement is legally wrong.
In a saner time, the claim would have been laughed out of court. After all, even if the NonHuman Rights Project prevails, Happy will not be free. Rather, she will be relocated to an elephant sanctuary chosen by the plaintiffs. In other words, whichever way the court rules, Happy will remain entirely under human control.
But Happy is not the actual subject of this lawsuit. As in other, similar, but unsuccessful cases brought by animal-rights ideologues involving chimps and captive orcas, her well-being is merely the pretext. The real purpose of the lawsuit is to harness the intense emotions people feel for elephants — which are indeed magnificent creatures — to catapult a major animal-rights agenda known as “animal standing” into law.
How “Animal Standing” Would Further Animal-Rights Ideology
It is important to understand that the animal-rights movement does not seek to improve techniques of animal husbandry. That approach — known as “animal welfare” — is opposed by animal-rights activists because it presumes humans can own animals. Animal-rights ideology denies that people have the right to use animals for any purpose, no matter how beneficial to us. In other words, the movement’s ultimate desire is to end all animal domestication.
Animal standing would further this goal by allowing animals to bring lawsuits against their owners. Once again, as with so much animal-rights advocacy, the entire concept is a sham. The animal “litigants” would be oblivious to their cases, just as Happy is to the one involving her. But the legal fiction of animals suing would empower animal-rights ideologues to use the courts as a cudgel to subvert animal-using industries and institutions.
What would more readily further that long-term goal than allowing animals to sue their owners? Imagine the chaos that court rulings allowing animal standing could unleash: hundreds of animal lawyers, filing thousands of lawsuits, forcing industries to spend tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and legal costs defending their husbandry. No animal industry would be safe. In other words, granting personhood to Happy would be the first step in a long march aimed at opening courtrooms to all owned animals.
These cases would start with what we once called “higher mammals,” such as chimps, apes, dolphins, dogs, pigs, and elephants. But they would eventually spread to all domesticated animals. You see, the movement’s ideology does not view the philosophical concept of “personhood” based on cognitive capacities as the proper basis for granting “rights.” Rather, animal-rights ideology holds that rights flow from the ability to feel pain, a concept known as “painience” in the movement’s lexicon.
In this view, since humans and animals alike feel pain, we and they are moral equals — or as the head of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Ingrid Newkirk, told Vogue in 1989, “There is no rational basis for asserting that a human being has special rights: A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Moreover, animal rightists believe that what we do to animals should be viewed as if the same action were done to a human being. Thus, since cattle can feel pain, animal rightists believe that ranching is the tantamount to slaveholding and eating steak the moral equivalent of Auschwitz — an odious comparison PETA once made explicitly in its infamous “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign. Furthering this misanthropy, rather than ensuring Happy’s proper care, is the true ideological purpose behind the effort to have her declared a free and autonomous person.
Animal Standing Would Harm Humans
That is why it is essential that Happy not be granted rights. First, such a ruling would indeed “break the species barrier” — as the NonHuman Rights Project intends — blurring the moral distinction between humans and animals. Second, it would accomplish a major animal-rights goal of undermining the status of animals as property. On an existential level, the perceived exceptional nature of human beings would suffer a body blow. If we come to see ourselves as just another animal in the forest, that is precisely how we will act. And finally, it would dilute the meaning and importance of “rights.” If animals are coequal with humans, the concept of “rights” itself would be cheapened in the same way that inflation devalues currency.
Not only that, but granting animals rights would add to the surreality of the times in which we live. Under an animal-rights paradigm, humans could not assert any rights against an animal — nor, obviously, would animals have rights vis-à-vis each other. On the other hand, we would have rights only in relationship to other humans, but animals would have rights against us — except that the animals’ claims would be enforced only by people acting on behalf of the animals, who would have no idea what was going on. It is enough to make one dizzy.
Thus, when we get to the nub of the matter, animal welfare versus animal rights isn’t about “rights” at all. Rather, it a debate about the scope, nature, and extent of our duties toward animals — obligations, it is important to add, that are predicated solely on our being human. In this sense, the animal-rights controversy itself is ironic proof of human exceptionalism. As moral beings, we should be held to account for how we treat animals, but as amoral beings, they are not responsible for any of their actions, no matter how brutal.
So let us hope the seven judges of the court resist the temptation to “make history.” Promoting the proper care of animals is a noble cause, but that is not what the legal effort to have Happy declared a “person” is ultimately all about.