Saturday, September 26, 2009

Are animals entitled to the same respect and rights as humans?

Vancouver Sun - Friday, September 25, 2009

By Daphne Bramham

Photo by Vancouver Sun

I have never doubted Darwin’s theory. But when an adolescent, female orangutan swings down from a tree in the Malaysian rainforest, landing only a few metres away from me, I look into her dark face rimmed with fiery red-orange hair and am certain.

Arms’ length apart, the urge to touch her is almost overwhelming. But it’s forbidden at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

She and several dozen others were there to be rehabilitated to the forest and to have her reliance on humans broken. Since I saw her last fall, Kara has been released into the wild.

Orangutan means “people of the forest” in Bahasa, the official language in Malaysia and Indonesia. Unique to Borneo, they are endangered because their habitat is being replaced by palm oil plantations.

Before I left Sepilok, I “adopted” two babies - Sen and Sogo Sogo. I get updates on them and can follow their progress at

At times, I’m slightly repelled by the anthropomorphizing that seems necessary to stave off extinction - the naming, the “adopting” and photos of the babies in diapers (which to be fair is a perfectly understandable thing with the “orphans” in the centre’s “nursery” where humans are their “surrogate mothers.”)

But they are not human. They are animals, albeit one of four species of great apes which share 99 per cent of our genes.

Yet determining our relationship with them - as with all species whether polar bears, cocker spaniels or cockroaches - requires an honest assessment of what we perceive them to be.

Are they our property as Canadian laws seem to presuppose, allowing us to kill baby seals, destroy the environment to the point that polar bears are at risk, raise chickens in cages so small they can’t turn around and use animals as spectacle even if it means that every year some die at rodeos and in zoos?

Or, as sentient beings, are animals entitled to the same respect and rights as humans?

Mid-spectrum are animal welfare advocates such as the humane societies, which support the responsible care of animals whether they are pets or used for food or work.

But calls for an Animal Bill of Rights are growing. While Canada fiddled with the Criminal Code provisions on animal cruelty only enough to modestly raise the penalties, Britain and Spain signed on to declarations giving great apes the rights to life, liberty and protection from torture.

Animal rights is a relatively new idea in the West that has gained traction largely because of increased concerns about the environment. But it’s an ancient idea in Asia where pacificism for Jains and Buddhists has long translated into strict vegetarianism.

“Non-violence applies not just to human beings, but to all sentient beings — any living thing that has a mind,” the Dalai Lama wrote in My Tibet. “Where there is a mind, there are feelings such as pain, pleasure and joy. No sentient being wants pain: All want happiness instead.”

While the Great Ape Project focuses only on extending human rights to orangutans, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, other groups such as the American Legal Defense Fund propose basic rights for all animals that mirror those included in declarations of women’s, children’s and human rights that include freedom from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse.

But that’s not all. The American Legal Defense Fund wants the right of wild animals to natural habitat and a self-sustaining population enshrined as well as the right of farm animals to an environment that “satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs” and, the right of all animals to “have their interests represented in court and safeguarded by the law of the land.”

There is much that I agree with in the various animal bills of rights. It seems inarguable that torturing or being willfully cruel should be illegal. But after that it’s tricky for anyone who eats meat, eggs and even dairy products.

It seems inarguable that we, humans, should not destroy the very planet that sustains us and so many other living things.

Yet, without a massive, disruptive and even painful reorganization of our economy and society, we’re barrelling down that road in our SUVs.

Palm oil is a good example. A sought-after industrial lubricant, it’s also in huge demand for soaps, face creams and cooking oil.

Increasing demand for it means that in Africa, palm plantations now provide desperately needed money to women’s co-operatives and direct financing for hospitals.

But in Malaysia and Indonesia, increasing demand is gobbling through the tropical rainforests without which orangutans, the Asian rhinoceros, so-called pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers will become extinct.

Sogo Sogo’s little face smiles out at me from the photo on my desk.

Us or them?

With our bigger brains, we bear a greater responsibility to animals than declaring them equal and providing them with a bill of rights. As women and children around the world can attest, it’s often not worth the paper it’s written on.

We need to find ways to share the planet, doing the least harm possible for all of the children -human and animal.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Human rights & Non-human rights

By Daniel K. Wilson

District 9 is an interesting little film in regards to how we understand, view and treat non-humans. I’ve often wondered what would happen if extraterrestrials just showed up at the White House or the Kremlin one day. Would we kill them on sight out of fear? Would we cage them and experiment on them to learn what makes them tick? Would we enslave them and exploit them for their technology?

This film addresses all these questions. Even though the aliens are technologically superior to us and are able to communicate with us in a language we can understand, they are not biologically superior. And since they’re not human, they don’t deserve human rights. In this film, intelligence, language and superior technology are not enough to warrant equal consideration.

It’s the same way we treat non-humans right now. We do all the above-mentioned atrocities and even more, to non-human animals that have always shared this planet with us. Animals that maybe aren’t as smart as we are (although some are many times stronger than us and possess senses and abilities that we don’t), yet deserve compassion and respect all the same.

But people don’t see animals this way; at least not all animals. Without giving anything away, there’s a scene in the movie where a pig gets blown away during a shoot out between the good guys and the bad guys. Almost everyone in the audience laughed. If it had been a dog, those same people would’ve been sad and upset but because it’s a pig - an animal not very high on our list of favourites - they think it’s funny.

This is called cognitive dissonance, when people hold two contradictory views about something, like when it’s okay to kill and eat a pig but wrong to kill and eat a cat, or when it’s wrong to kill an alien, like in the movie, but okay to kill a cow or pig.

I’d like to think that if an alien species landed on Earth tomorrow we’d extend our hand in peace and fellowship, but knowing how we’ve treated others that are different from us in the past and how we continue to treat other animals, I’m doubtful.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Wolf killer to loons: stop picking on me!

By Daniel K. Wilson

A story out of Idaho the other day caught my eye about a hunter who’s been harassed for killing one of the area’s wolves, after they were taken off the endangered species list back in May.

You can read the whole story here:

“People are loons,” said wolf killer Robert Millage. “If they want to call up and have a discussion, I'm all about having a discussion. But they call me a fat redneck and a wolf killer and compare me to Michael Vick.”

Imagine that, people calling a man who just killed a wolf a “wolf killer”. Oh the cruelty!

But I feel sorry for this wolf killer, I really do. All he did was go out one beautiful summer day with the intention of killing a wolf that had never done any harm to him, and other people - probably city folk - are upset by it.

I mean, this guy, whose full time occupation is selling real estate, was well within his right to blow away this wolf and now he wants the police to watch over him and his business because he’s scared of what people might do.

I don’t know what kind of real estate hunters they’re raising in the land of potatoes these days but it seems to me that if a person is able to point a gun at a defenceless, innocent animal and pull the trigger, that person should be able to take a little criticism.

But still, I feel his anguish. Never mind about the wolf he killed for no other reason than the desire to end someone else’s life (and it was legal remember) or prove his “manhood”, and never mind about the mate left behind (most wolves are monogamous and typically mate for life) or the pups that have to grow up without their mother.

No, let’s feel sorry for this great white hunter because his feelings have been hurt. It’s so unfair.

After all, he only did what the government said he could do – kill animals for the fun of it.

By the way, I’m being sarcastic.