Drawing the Line:<br>Science and the Case for Animal Rights

Read Time:
2m 53sec

Perseus. 322 pp. $26
Reviewed by Matthew Scully

"Legal rights" for chimps, elephants, dolphins, and other animals sounds very new and radical until you stop to consider that there is only one legal right that any animal could possibly exercise: the right to be free from human cruelty or other mistreatment. Whether we call it a "right" or something else matters little, least of all to the animals.

You have to keep this in mind while reading Drawing the Line, for, like other advocates of the cause, Wise has a way of making his case seem more alarming than necessary. His argument amounts to this: Our understanding of animals, and especially advanced mammals, has increased substantially. Their intelligence and emotional sensitivity, though not rivaling our own, are real and morally consequential. Precisely because we alone are rational and moral creatures, we have a duty to acknowledge these facts about animals’ natures and capacities and to revise our legal boundaries accordingly.

An attorney in the field, Wise aims for a "realizable minimum" of legal rights for various species, including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and other primates whose mental awareness is proved by, among other evidence, their ability to learn rudimentary sign language. Behavioral scientists try to dismiss this communication as mechanistic imitation, but actually seeing it, as I have, leaves little doubt of conscious and deliberate expression.

In similar research, dolphins correctly press levers marked "yes" and "no" in response to such questions as whether a ball is in their tank, and they show a grasp of "over," "under," "through," and other concepts. The famed Alex, an African gray parrot, can correctly identify objects, shapes, colors, and quantities up to six, and can make simple requests such as "go see tree." Elephants, observed both in captivity and in the wild, prove themselves resourceful

problem solvers, justify their reputation for long-term memory, and display many well-documented signs of emotion (as in the case of calves convulsing in nightmares after seeing their mothers slain).

Each of these species has what Wise calls "practical autonomy"–conscious desires and an ability to pursue those desires–which, he argues, entitles them to "dignity rights" and "legal personhood." The latter concept will jar many readers, but what would legal personhood for, say, elephants amount to? Specific and well-enforced protections from the people who harm them–those engaged in the exotic wildlife trade, for example, or the vicious people who to this day still hunt elephants for trophies.

The strength of Wise’s case is that, unlike the dreary utilitarian theories that have given animal rights a bad name, it rests on a belief that individual creatures have intrinsic rather than instrumental moral value, and thereby places animal welfare squarely within the Western legal tradition. Indeed, he might have argued that even as we dispute the finer questions about animal rights, the law has already conceded a crucial point through the many statutes that make it a crime, in most states a felony, to abuse certain animals regardless of whether they belong to the offender–a recognition of moral status and a de facto legal right trumping the claims of property.

Critics of animal rights often fail to supply a useful moral alternative that would restrain human cruelty and instill respect for our fellow creatures. To their credit, rights advocates at least confront abhorrent practices and demand hard standards in the care of animals, as Wise has done here with the skill and seriousness the subject deserves.

–Matthew Scully

More From This Issue