Wednesday, September 04, 2002

PEOPLE AND ANIMALS

"Drawing the Line" by Steven M. Wise
A Harvard professor says science itself proves that such animals as parrots, apes and elephants should be considered persons with legal rights. By Kurt Kleiner

Is a parrot a person? How about a chimpanzee? Or a honeybee? Of course any kid can tell you that they're not. Only people are people. Animals are animals.

But Steven M. Wise says it's not that simple. In "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights," he argues that science shows that some animals really are people. At least, they're legally entitled to be treated that way.

Wise is a lawyer and well-known animal rights activist who teaches a course on animal rights law at Harvard University. In his previous book, "Rattling the Cage," he argued that chimpanzees and bonobos deserve protection as legal persons. Here he extends the argument, and asks whether seven different animals -- gorillas, orangutans, parrots, dolphins, elephants, dogs and honeybees -- are entitled to legal rights.

If your high school biology classes were anything like mine, you were taught that animals are instinct-driven automatons. If we think we see intelligence, reasoning, even emotion in animals, then we're anthropomorphizing. But Wise details scientific work that shows some animals' minds really do seem to work like our own. He thinks he can use these studies, combined with the legal principle of equality, as a crowbar to pry animal rights out of existing law....

Wise's accounts of animals' mental abilities are fascinating and thought-provoking. But in the end, it wasn't their relative autonomy scores that swung my sympathies. It was the description of Koko making a joke; of a mother elephant involving her youngster in a game so she could complete a task. It was the account of Alex, the parrot, left at the vet for surgery, calling after her keeper, "Come here. I love you. I'm sorry. I want to go back."

Call me an animal lover, call me a shameless anthropomorphizer. But I'm most convinced by the animal rights movement when I'm made to consider that animals can suffer and feel emotion. I think most people are the same.

Only if and when enough people decide that it's morally -- "philosophically" -- wrong to treat animals the way we do, and then translate those beliefs into political action, will there be hope for the sort of sweeping change Wise advocates.