April 7, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

Animal Rights

All animals are equal. But some animals are more equal than others.

George Orwell

I recently heard a Harvard lawyer discuss animal rights. He believes that rights similar to those that people have should be extended to chimpanzees. His reasoning is interesting.

Rights are something that exist only in countries that have a formal code of law. Despite what the Declaration of Independence says, there are no such things as "unalienable rights." It should be obvious that in a jungle, there is no such thing. What prevails is the law of the jungle in which any animal that can eats any other animal that can't get away. Usually animals kill only for food, but not always. There are incidents where a cougar or a pack of dogs have gotten into a pen with sheep and gone on a slaughtering rampage. There are also people who have done the same thing with other people.

In our country, even after the Revolutionary War, slaves were treated as property, not people, and women were a close second. A slave owner could do anything that he wanted to to his slaves. Slaves were considered property, not people, in the eyes of the law. This, despite the fact that slave owners and their slaves often interbred. By the same token, a husband could do as he pleased with his wife. In some parts of the world, this is still true and a husband killing his wife is not considered murder. I am not sure whether killing someone else's wife is considered murder or the destruction of property.

Our Harvard lawyer pointed to a steady increase in rights for people who were not previously considered to have any, and he is obviously correct. Despite miscarriages of justice, all human beings have rights that are, at least on paper, protected by the law. This is true for people of all races, religions and sexes.

There are laws that punish cruelty to non-human animals. Living conditions for animals in zoos and for laboratory animals have continually improved, although the same cannot be said for food animals.

In California, horses cannot be eaten, but pigs can be. In terms of intelligence, it is a question whether horses are more or less intelligent than pigs. I think that, as a general rule, carnivores are more intelligent than herbivores; with the possible exception of George Bernard Shaw. I don't know of laws that prohibit eating cats and dogs. The chihuawa was originally bred as a food animal, and there are parts of the world where dogs and cats are eaten. Hungry people will eat anything that is edible, and they do. Foods that are taboo to some cultures are considered dietary staples by others. In France, there are butcher shops (boucherie chevaline) that specialize in horse meat. When I was a student in Berkeley, the pet food store near the university would save the choice cuts of horse meat for the zoologists. I didn't try it then, and now that I would like to, it is against the law. My personal experiences with horses have have been such that I have no particular love for them.

The question is, can you draw a line as far as rights are concerned based on intelligence? It is obvious that there is a profound difference between an earthworm and a human being. However, I have known some dogs and cats that were more intelligent than some people. I have seen people who could do little more than eat and breathe and animals that could solve problems in a fairly intelligent way. Yet people, regardless of their condition, have rights and animals do not.

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