Friday, March 18, 2016

Who Has More Legal Rights, a Corporation or an Ape?

The Vegan Vine
Tommy in his cell. Photo courtesy of Nonhuman Rights Project.
His name is Tommy, he is 28 years old, and after having been forced to spend most of his life performing in a circus, he now lives in solitary confinement in a small, dark, cement cage 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at a used-trailer lot in Upstate New York. His only company is a small television. What crime did Tommy commit to endure such misery and isolation? He was born a chimpanzee.

There is an old adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. American legal scholar and attorney Steven Wise certainly hopes so. He and his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), are ardently fighting for Tommy and other chimpanzees in court. They are working to change the common law status of nonhuman animals from property and mere things, which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to persons who possess fundamental rights, one of them being the right not to be wrongfully imprisoned.

Until animal rights activists can obtain systemic change within the legal system—getting both courts and lawmakers to recognize all nonhuman animals as individuals with the same inherent legal rights as any human animal—the fight for animal justice will remain an arduous, grassroots struggle, and individuals like Tommy will continue to suffer at human will.

Animal rights is not a foreign or fanatical idea. Those who consider it extreme usually have something to lose by its implementation. Once upon a time, African Americans had similar property status. It took a Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and three constitutional amendments to give former slaves equal protection under the law because those with vested interests in slavery (plantation owners, the cotton industry, Southern aristocrats) spurned the idea of losing their "peculiar institution" and their source of economic wealth.

Currently, the NhRP is working to obtain personhood rights and protections for chimpanzees like Tommy who most resemble humans in that they are “self-aware, possess deep emotions, live in close-knit societies, use sophisticated communication, and mourn the loss of their loved ones.” They figure this is the best place to start. Of course, many nonhuman animals share these traits and intelligence has no bearing on an animal’s sentience. As eighteenth century law professor and philosopher Jeremy Bentham wisely observed: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?" he asked.

History shows us that justice is not blind and courts, like any other human-centric establishment, continue to operate from an anthropocentric prejudice. After all, if intelligence were truly a prerequisite for rights, then children and the mentally disabled would have none.

Still, if the NhRP can get a foot in the door and move the courts to recognize the rights of Tommy and other nonhuman primates, in addition to dolphins, elephants, orcas, and parrots—it can lead to a domino effect whereby all animal abuse and exploitation will be deemed illegal. Eventually, breeding and torturing other animals for food; kidnapping them from the wild for zoos and aquariums; subjecting them to painful experiments for science and cosmetics; exploiting them for entertainment at circuses, rodeos, and theme parks; and treating them like mere objects for sheer human amusement and profit will one day be a thing of the past.

It is, nevertheless, an uphill battle. In 2010, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on videos depicting animal cruelty because they said it violated free speech. This ruling included violent dog fighting footage and so-called crush videos that show women literally crushing small animals to death with their bare feet or high-heeled shoes. Only one justice dissented to legalizing the sale of such videos: Justice Samuel Alito, who said the harm animals suffer . . .  is enough to sustain the law.

Videotaping and peddling child pornography is illegal and rightly so because it encourages similar acts of abuse against innocents. No one contests this and thinks that this a violation of free speech, and yet taping violence committed against innocent nonhuman animals is somehow acceptable. 

Except, of course, when it comes to the meat, dairy, and egg industries. Animal food industries have such political clout that they have been able to sell lawmakers in some states on passing legislation criminalizing the recording of standard, institutional acts of cruelty inflicted against farmed animals. Ag-Gag laws, as they are commonly called, outlaw the documentation of animal cruelty by silencing activists who record animal abuse at factory farms and other industries that exploit animals. Many of these undercover activists risk their lives, and suffer emotional and mental trauma from what they witness, to expose to the public the customary horrors involved in meat, dairy, and egg production.

The animal food industries prefer that the public not be privy to their sanctioned abuse for fear that it will impact them financially.  And yet, when critics argue that Ag-Gag laws are a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech, the courts have often—conveniently—disagreed.

There’s an economic incentive for abusing and exploiting animals in all sectors of society. Many states have enacted legislation to protect dogs and cats from certain abuses, but these very same laws exempt farm animals in order to shield the monetary interests of farmers, factory farms, food corporations, pharmaceutical companies, cosmetic companies, research universities, the military, and countless other institutions that exploit, abuse, and kill nonhuman animals for gain.

In fact, laws typically work to make manipulating animals more efficient for business. For example, stunning a cow to make her unconscious before slitting her neck is not done to help the animal, but to help streamline the process for slaughterhouse productivity. In his book, Eat Like You Care, Animal Law Professor Gary L. Francione explains:
. . . the law generally prohibits imposing suffering on animals only when we get an economic benefit from doing so. . . . Large animals who are conscious and hanging upside down and thrashing as they are slaughtered will cause injuries to slaughterhouse workers and will incur expensive carcass damage. . . . Animal welfare laws that require ‘humane’ treatment are really not about animals; they’re about humans and making humans feel better about using animals.
The extent to which laws safeguard some nonhuman animals and disregard others is absurd and arbitrary, justified only by how useful certain animals are in satisfying consumer demands for pleasure, convenience, and amusement. 

On the bright side, two fairly recent rulings by the Oregon Supreme Court acknowledged that nonhuman animals have moral worth and those who have been abused are victims who deserve consideration in judgments. While this is a positive step in the right direction, nonhuman animals still have zero legal rights. Even the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are entitled to certain legal rights which nonhuman animals are denied. So, while SCOTUS and politicians proclaim "corporations are people," the property status of nonhuman animals remains unchanged and those like Tommy have no more rights than a toaster.

George Orwell was correct when, at the end of Animal Farm, he cynically wrote "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Most human suffering, loss, deprivation, and early death come from injustice toward nonhuman animals. Establishing rights for all animals is vital to all of us and must be recognized above human opportunism and self-interest! Whether we allow our collective egos to finally concede this fact or whether we continue to deny other animals like Tommy their innate right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is clearly up to us but, sooner or later, justice will get her due—and so will we—even if Tommy does not.

UPDATE: NhRP recently reported that Tommy was moved to a roadside zoo in Michigan some months ago. To help Tommy and others, please visit the Nonhuman Rights Project

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