An evolving struggle for rights of animals

Advocates take fight to the classrooms of nation's law schools

February 25, 2000|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

After years of dousing mink coats with red paint and clamoring for the release of monkeys from research labs, animal rights advocates are making their case in a far less contentious way -- teaching at some of the country's top law schools.

Students this year at Harvard, Duke and Georgetown universities have begun the first concentrated study of the legal st ruggles for animals.

As discoveries in genetics and neuroscience increasingly blur the distinction between animals and humans, lawyers have generated enough precedent-setting judgments to define an entirely new field of study. Animal law has, consequently, taken a large leap forward since 1981 when the national animal rights movement began in earnest after police seized 17 monkeys in a raid at a Silver Spring research lab.

"It is timely," explained Alan Ray, assistant dean for academic affairs at Harvard Law School. "We felt the course would respond to a growing student interest and to growing scholarship in the field. We're not making any broader statement of policy about animal rights, but we do believe there are legitimate issues raised that deserve consideration about the legal status of nonhuman animals."

Harvard hired Massachusetts attorney Steven Wise to teach its first course. Wise recently published a book arguing for animal legal rights, "Rattling the Cage," which was lauded by primatologist Jane Goodall as "the animals' Magna Carta."

A scholarly, self-effacing man, Wise has devoted 20 years as a lawyer to defending dogs, speaking on behalf of chimpanzees, dolphins and parrots and being humiliated by judges who sometimes berate him for bringing animal cases to their courts.

Finding that his mission has earned this degree of credibility is satisfying.

"The ideas are becoming accepted much quicker than I would have thought," he said.

Legal rights expected

In the next decade, Wise expects to make a case that chimpanzees and bonobos (a close primate relative) share enough similarities with humans to be be granted fundamental legal rights. This would effectively protect them from hunters and traders, end their use in biomedical research and give their advocates power to sue on their behalf.

Critics acknowledge an increase in litigation in the field, but to suggest that animals should have legal rights is more than some can stomach.

"I do not regard myself as an `animal-is-a-thing' person," said University of Chicago professor Richard Epstein, who has become one of the few legal scholars to publicly question the law school trend. "That's a grotesque position. But we can't falsify what we know as the truth about evolution and human behavior. Animals aren't human beings."

Advocates point to scientific evidence suggesting that chimpanzees and humans diverged from the same evolutionary path and that their DNA is nearly 98.5 percent identical.

A recent report assisting their argument appeared last summer in the influential journal Nature showing that chimpanzees in the wild create complex social communities that, like human societies, develop into distinctly different cultures.

Other studies describe certain animals' social behaviors such as tool-making, courtship and grooming, and other research suggests that chimps and bonobos can count and communicate with language.

Consciousness disputed

With so many sophisticated qualities, Wise believes, chimps and bonobos demonstrate they are conscious beings deserving not just human protection, but legal rights.

Again, critics disagree.

"I think Steve Wise has a great mission," said Harvard's Marc Hauser, an authority in animal cognition and author of the forthcoming book "Wild Minds: What Animals Think." "He wants to make sure animals aren't dismissed as property, and I'm 100 percent behind that. On the other hand, when he crosses disciplines, his reading and understanding of animals is not how I interpret them. He promotes stuff I don't think is easily justified."

For example, Hauser said, even though chimps share some cognitive similarities with humans, they do not seem to understand what others know, think, believe and desire -- qualities often listed by researchers as necessary for equating them with humans.

"We have to be careful about ascribing human motivations and reactions to animal behaviors," he said, "or suggesting that we know what's going on in their hearts and minds when we just don't have it yet."

Nonetheless, public regard for greater legal protections seems to be increasing. Last week in Seattle, after acrimonious debate about mistreatment of elephants and other circus animals, the City Council came very close to endorsing an ordinance banning circus animals from the town. In San Francisco recently, the local animal control commission recommended adding the term "pet guardians" to official documents describing the relationship between pets and their human companions.

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