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Should animals have rights similar to human rights? Michael's Essay

Michael looks at the legal arguments over giving rights to animals.

The hearing in New York this week was unprecedented. For the first time in history, a judge heard legal arguments to grant habeas corpus, the "Great Writ", to two non-humans.

The suit was brought by a group called the Nonhuman Rights Project, on behalf of two chimpanzees named Leo and Hercules. The two chimps are being held in the state university for a scientific study in locomotion. If granted, the habeas corpus writ would see them released and transferred to a sanctuary in Florida.

Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, Manhattan State Supreme Court, in New York, after a hearing, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. (Credit: AP Photo/Richard Drew)
On one side, lawyers say the chimps are being unlawfully detained. On the other, lawyers for the university say to grant the writ would endow the animals with "personhood", and  create a "slippery slope."

Until a few years ago, I never paid much attention to how the animals I ate found their way to my table, let alone to the idea that they deserved some kind of rights. Until I interviewed Temple Grandin. She is the extraordinary woman who overcame autism to become the world's leading expert of the ethical treatment of domestic animals. She taught me a lot.

On the face of it, the New York lawsuit seems preposterous. How could an animal's so-called rights be placed on the same plane as those of a human being? After all, the Bible tells us we have dominion over all kinds of things, including the beasts of the earth. Moreover, our economies depend to a large extent on the idea that animals are property; how can they possibly deserve rights?

Well, the answer can be found in an important just-released book called Canadian Perspectives on Animals and the Law, published by Irwin Law.

In a series of 12 absorbing essays, the authors make a strong case for consideration of rights for animals. This is from the philosophical argument for animal rights by Angus Taylor: "If we ascribe certain moral rights to humans on the basis of particular qualities  such as the ability to suffer or the capacity for self-awareness, then we cannot deny those rights to non-humans who possess the same qualities."

That to me is the nub of the argument: animals are sentient and self-aware and they can suffer pain. Just like the rest of us."If we ascribe certain moral rights to humans on the basis of particular qualities such as the ability to suffer or the capacity for self-awareness, then we cannot deny those rights to non-humans who possess the same qualities."

The whole idea is not as far-fetched as one might think. In Europe, several countries have taken up the cause of animal rights.

In India, the Kerala high court decreed that circus animals were entitled to a dignified existence within the meaning of the Indian constitution. In 2014, Quebec amended its Civil Code to say that animals were more than property, that they were sentient beings.

But over all, as the authors of an essay on Canada point out, we have a terrible record when it comes to animal welfare --- far behind other countries.

 "It (the government) has actively opposed the development of progressive international  norms with respect to certain wild species like whales, seals and polar bears."  Each essay makes a strong case for reform. Taken together, they suggest that bestowing certain rights on animals enhances us as a country.

The editors remind us of the famous quote by Gandhi: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."


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