Jungle Jurisprudence

Tommy, a resident of Gloversville, New York, filed a lawsuit in a New York state court last year against Patrick and Diane Lavery for what he claims was his unlawful detention in a “small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.”  Actually, to be more precise, the lawsuit was filed on Tommy’s behalf, by the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), as he is a chimpanzee. 

Legal action was initiated at the same time on behalf of Kiko, a chimp in Niagara Falls, and Hercules and Leo, primates in a research facility at Stony Brook University on Long Island.

The NhRP asked the court to declare Tommy, then 26, “a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.”

In October 2011, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of five orcas, accusing the theme parks owning them of violating the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. The suit was dismissed by a judge in the U.S. District Court for Southern California who wrote in his ruling that “the only reasonable interpretation of the 13th Amendment’s plain language is that it applies to persons, and not to nonpersons such as orcas.”

NhRP’s president, Steven Wise, an attorney who teaches “animal rights law” at Harvard Law School, lost a similar case on behalf of a dolphin in 1991.  But he is hoping, and not without reason, that over more recent years attitudes like that of Princeton University “ethicist” Peter Singer, who has decried “speciesism,” have taken hold in society and among the judiciary, at least with regard to animals like chimps, who, he says, “possess complex cognitive abilities that are so strictly protected when they’re found in human beings.”

Indeed, Mr. Wise has argued that, like severely compromised babies with no discernable cognitive abilities, animals like chimps should be considered persons in the eyes of the law.  Professor Singer, for his part, has gone a step further, stating bluntly that “The life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.”  He takes his logic to its inevitable conclusion and advocates the killing of the severely disabled and unconscious elderly as well.

Such attitudes are of a part with books like the astoundingly offensive Eternal Treblinka, which compares “the exploitation and slaughter of animals” for food with Nazi concentration camps.

Some of the most fundamental philosophical and moral issues of our time — indeed of any time — touch upon the special distinction of humanness. Calling an unborn child something other than that, for instance, and characterizing its destruction as a mere “choice,” is, in the word’s most stark sense, dehumanizing. As is the removal of other moral curbs on human behavior on the grounds that people are, as Professor Singer asserts, mere animals.

The prospect that the decision in the chimpanzees’ case might further fuzz the line between humans and animals should deeply discomfit those of us who believe that humans, with their ability to exercise free will and their obligations to the Divine, are special parts of Creation.

According to our mesorah, until the time of Noach, although animals were allowed to be used as beasts of burden, they could not be consumed as food.  After the Mabul, however, the eating of meat became permissible to mankind.  One reason that has been suggested for that change is based on another rabbinic tradition, that the dor haMabul, the “Generation of the Flood,” had lost its essential moral bearings, going so far as to act as if there were no difference between humans and animals.

The divine sanction of meat-eating, that approach contends, was a means of impressing humankind with the too-easily-lost truth that human beings are special, possessive of a spark of holiness that does not inhere in animals.

Mr. Wise has warned his students to not hope for “a principles judge,” one who might say “You lose. I don’t agree with your principles. I agree with the principle that [G-d] created humans, and we all have souls, and we’re special, and nonhuman animals do not and so aren’t.”  In that case, he tells his charges, “you’ve just shot yourself in the head.”  One hopes that no violence is involved, but that if any of the young men and women he teaches are inspired to follow in his footsteps, they will encounter many such a judge.

And yet, we would be wrong to blithely dismiss concerns for animal welfare.  We mustn’t forget that the Torah, although it permits us to “enslave” animals and even eat some of them, proscribes us from causing needless pain to non-human creatures.  Tzaar ba’alei chaim is a serious issur.

But the animal-personhood crowd has it all wrong. The issue isn’t animal rights; there is no such thing. The issue is human responsibility — ironically, itself a product of humanity’s specialness.