August 20, 1999

We the People (and Other Animals) ...


ATLANTA -- After a narrow escape, the Thompson gazelle calls her lawyer, complaining that her freedom to graze wherever she wants has once again been violated. Should she sue the cheetah, or does the lawyer perhaps feel that predators have rights, too?

Absurd, of course, and I certainly applaud efforts to prevent animal abuse, but I do have serious questions about the approach that now has led law schools in this country to start offering courses in "animal law." What they mean is not the law of the jungle, but the extension of principles of justice to animals. Animals are not mere property, according to some, like Steven M. Wise, the lawyer who is to teach the course this spring at Harvard. They deserve rights as solid and uncontestable as the constitutional rights of people. Some animal-rights lawyers have even argued, for example, that chimpanzees deserve rights to bodily integrity and liberty.

This view has gained some currency. For instance, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia last year gave a human zoo visitor the right to sue to get companionship for chimpanzees. And over the last five years, state legislatures have upgraded animal cruelty crimes to felonies from misdemeanors.

The debate over animal rights is not new. I still remember some surrealistic debates among scientists in the 1970's that dismissed animal suffering as a bleeding-heart issue. Amid stern warnings against anthropomorphism, the then-prevailing view was that animals were mere robots, devoid of feelings, thoughts or emotions.

With straight faces, scientists would argue that animals cannot suffer, at least not the way we do. A fish is pulled out of the water with a big hook in its mouth, it thrashes around on dry land, but how could we possibly know what it feels? Isn't all of this pure projection?

This thinking changed in the 1980's with the advent of cognitive approaches to animal behavior. We now use terms like "planning" and "awareness" in relation to animals. They are believed to understand the effects of their own actions, to communicate emotions and make decisions. Some animals, like chimpanzees, are even considered to have rudimentary politics and culture.

In my own experience, chimpanzees pursue power as relentlessly as some people in Washington and keep track of given and received services in a marketplace of exchange. Their feelings may range from gratitude for political support to outrage if one of them violates a social rule. All of this goes far beyond simple fear, pain and anger: the emotional life of these animals is much closer to ours than once held possible.

This new understanding may change our attitude toward chimpanzees and, by extension, other animals, but it remains a big leap to say that the only way to insure their decent treatment is to give them rights and lawyers.

Doing so is the American way, I guess, but rights are part of a social contract that makes no sense without responsibilities. This is the reason that the animal rights movement's outrageous parallel with the abolition of slavery -- apart from being insulting -- is morally flawed: slaves can and should become full members of society; animals cannot and will not.

Indeed, giving animals rights relies entirely upon our good will. Consequently, animals will have only those rights that we can handle. One won't hear much about the rights of rodents to take over our homes, of starlings to raid cherry trees or of dogs to decide their master's walking route. Rights selectively granted are, in my book, no rights at all.

What if we drop all this talk of rights and instead advocate a sense of obligation? In the same way we teach children to respect a tree by mentioning its age, we should use the new insights into animals' mental life to foster in humans an ethic of caring in which our interests are not the only ones in the balance.

Even though many social animals have evolved affectionate and altruistic tendencies, they rarely if ever direct these to other species. The way the cheetah treats the gazelle is typical. We are the first to apply tendencies that evolved within the group to a wider circle of humanity, and could do the same to other animals, making care, not rights, the centerpiece of our attitude.

Frans B. M. de Waal, a scientist at Yerkes Primate Center at Emory University, is the author of "Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals."

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company