Saturday, January 17, 2009

"How smart does a chimp have to be...?"

The Weston Town Crier - Thursday, January 15, 2009

By Elizabeth K. Daly

WESTON - You have the right, dear reader, to ignore this article, along with a lot of other rights you may never have thought about, like the right not to be held captive in a laboratory, not to be experimented on, not to have cosmetics and household cleaners tested on you, and not to be killed.

You never had to earn these rights; to enjoy them you never had to prove a thing. All you needed was the good fortune to be born a human being.

If you were, these rights were automatically yours, even if you were born disabled, handicapped, diseased or mentally deficient. In the midst of whatever complaints or grievances you may have in life, never cease to be grateful for those rights.

What are rights anyway, and how does anybody come by them? Whatever they are, they are deemed to be absolute and "inalienable," as Thomas Jefferson put it. But in fact they vary so much from one era to another and from one society to another that they have to be regarded as culturally agreed upon privileges.

The same Thomas Jefferson who asserted man’s "inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" was a slave owner, whose slaves were deemed to be mere property with no rights at all. From the inception of our country to the Emancipation Proclamation, that viewpoint was commonly held by well-bred ladies and gentlemen and ordinary citizens alike.

From today’s vantage point, it is clear that slaves were people, who in fact had rights, but whose rights were violated by the society of the day. We look similarly on the victims of the Holocaust, of Stalinist Russia, of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, of contemporary Africa’s genocidal wars, and of dictatorial regimes in general.

We don’t see those victims as people without rights, but rather, as people whose rights were violated and denied, and we see that violation and denial as a heinous crime. If and when the victims’ status changes and their rights are accorded, they are not granted new rights; rather, their society finally comes to recognize the rights that were theirs all along.

Cultural evolution of this kind does occur, and that is what gives hope for the future to those who can see, even now, that animals have rights. Why are animal rights at present so ubiquitously violated?

Two commonly cited rationales for that violation are 1) that animals are inferior to humans and 2) that animals are so different from humans as to be unable to experience acute suffering.

It is entirely unclear why humans, as the kingpins of evolution, have the moral right to abuse creatures presumed to be beneath them in the evolutionary scheme of things, but the very premise of human superiority could use some re-examination. Our superiority is far from total, as we smugly like to think.

Who’s superior to whom?

Think of how many types of animals are superior to humans in their ability to run, climb, swim, burrow, fly, or in some cases, to remember; in their agility, speed, strength, endurance, and capacity to circumnavigate the globe in the air, on land, or on and under the oceans; in their keen senses of sight, hearing, smell, or of echo-location; in their ability to survive and thrive in the harshest environments – deserts, rocky mountain slopes, jungles, the North and South poles, and the depths of the oceans.

In beauty, many are equal if not superior to humans; think of horses, zebras, the golden tamarin monkey, lions, tigers, leopards, ocelots, panda bears, gazelles, birds, butterflies, dragonflies, and many others.

What the animals lack is written language and advanced technology. But even here, much research has shown that they communicate clearly with one another (beyond our ability to comprehend) and with specificity, using not only a large subtle repertoire of vocal sounds, but also complex body language and variable body odors. Some of their constructions, unaided by computers or construction manuals, are marvels of engineering. Think of a birds’ nest, a beehive, a spider’s web, a beavers’ dam, a prairie dogs’ underground town.

Those that live in packs or herds have a social order and a system of hierarchies that rival human societies in their complexity. In some packs and herds, not only parents, but the whole herd, help nurture the young and teach their culture, perpetuating it from one generation to the next, as humans do. Some animal societies – elephants, for example – have rituals for celebrating birth and mourning death. And many have been shown to create and use simple tools.

These similarities to humans are highly significant, because they give the lie to the other commonly cited rationale for denying animal rights, namely that animals are so different from us that they are incapable of feeling pain in the same way or of experiencing true suffering.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Many studies have documented the anxiety, severe depression and terror of laboratory animals, especially primates. Indeed their capacity to suffer is one more of their marked similarities to humans. Some primates have been taught to "speak" a human language through sign language, and these primate "speakers" have been reported to express the full range of "human" emotions – joy, sadness, remorse, fear, anxiety, love, hate, even humor. Some have demonstrated feats of intelligence previously thought to be uniquely human – to count, to do rudimentary calculations, to practice deception, to learn human sign language solely from a primate parent proficient in it.

Thou shalt not kill

All the similarities between humans and animals, and especially between humans and primates, are a two-edged sword for the deniers and supporters of animal rights. For the deniers, the similarities are a supreme convenience, making animals a good stand-in for humans in experimentation. What they conveniently forget is that rights are deemed to be absolute and inalienable, and have nothing at all to do with convenience.

For the supporters of animal rights the similarities place animals, especially primates, under the protection of our own ethical taboo against killing. How can it not apply, they ask, to our own closest relatives, members of our own hominid family? Those of a religious bent might ask the question a little differently – are we not all God’s creatures, all entitled to His mercy?

Other civilized nations are more advanced than the U.S. in acknowledging this ethical taboo. Such "backward" nations as Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and Japan have banned primate research in their countries, and Spain has gone one step further. In June 2008, the Spanish parliament explicitly acknowledged the rights of the great apes to life and freedom; legislation spelling out the practical implications of these rights is expected within a year.

The European Union as a whole is also ahead of us in banning safety testing of cosmetics on animals. The ban takes full effect in 2009, and it applies not only to testing, but also to the sale, within the European Union, of cosmetics tested on animals.

In the U.S. similar measures are pending, but support is needed to make them succeed. A bill before the House of Representatives, called the Great Apes Protection Act, or GAPA (H.R.5852), would ban most primate research in this country and would release primates currently in U.S. labs to sanctuaries.

There is also a petition before the Federal Drug Administration, called the Mandatory Alternatives Petition (MAP), that seeks compulsory non-animal testing for products, wherever non-animal alternatives are available. It was submitted in November 2007 by a coalition of organizations that advocate humane treatment of animals.

Anyone in Weston interested in speeding up these measures should write to Congressman Edward J. Markey, 2108 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington D.C. 20515, urging him to support GAPA, and to the commissioner of the FDA, Andrew C. von Eschenbach, MD, 5600 Fishers Lane, Rockville MD 20857, urging the FDA to comply with the MAP petition.

The title of this article, "How smart does a chimp have to be …?" is a truncated quotation from the famous scientist and writer Carl Sagan. The full question he asked was, "How smart does a chimp have to be before killing him constitutes murder?" While our country is pondering the question, the rights of chimpanzees and of countless other, even more "inferior" animals, are being excruciatingly violated every day. It happens not only in laboratories, but also on factory farms, in puppy mills, circuses, and other venues, too.

Animals are badly in need of our recognition of their rights. We are also in need of it, for the sake of our own consciences.

For a more thorough exposition of the legal concept of animal rights, see "Drawing the Line" and "Rattling the Cage," both by Steven M. Wise. For current news and information on this topic see the Web site of the Animal Legal Defense Fund at ""

Elizabeth K. Daly is a longtime resident of Weston and an activist for animal rights.

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