- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Stephen M. Wise practices animal rights law and teaches it at both the Harvard Law School and the Vermont Law School. I can imagine that he is an engaging teacher in this relatively new field, which is well worth exploring in an academic setting. I myself am entirely sympathetic with the cause of decent treatment for animals, both domestic and wild, and so I am sorry to say that I do not find this particular brief for animal rights entirely persuasive or likely to be effective politically.

In "Rattling the Cage," Mr. Wise cites examples of terrible cruelty to animals by experimenters and we know the horrors perpetrated by sleazy zoos, unprincipled dealers, trappers, and so on. Mr. Wise usefully reinvigorates our outrage.

His own argument goes this way: The law, he maintains, regards animals as "things." Since they are thus characterized, humans can do anything they wish to them. What Mr. Wise proposes is that they be legally recategorized as possessing "legal personhood." His focus here is on chimpanzees, but he would extend such personhood to other species on a case by case basis.

Of course Mr. Wise will be attacked for claiming that "chimpanzees are people." But he is not. He is seeking to define them legally in a way that provides them with maximum protection.

He observes that chimpanzees share more than 98.3 percent of their chromosomes with Homo Sapiens and that their brain structure is similar. He observes that chimpanzees perform many human-like acts and also keep intelligent company with friendly humans. He shares Darwin's belief that evolution rules out any sharp dichotomy between human beings and other animals.

But this last point is challengeable. It is one way of looking at evolution, and choosing to stress process over function. We can also observe that the human cerebral cortex (the "new" brain) is vastly larger in relation to body weight (the important ratio) than that of any other animal. The brain stem ("old" brain) governs the body's autonomic functions. Now it is in the highly developed cerebral cortex, which has to do with creativity, notably with language and other kinds of symbol-making, that an immense difference between humans and other animals resides.

The cerebral cortex is responsible for Chartres Cathedral, the Golden Gate Bridge and the plays of Shakespeare. Does this not look like the "sharp dichotomy" between humans and animals that Mr. Wise is concerned to deny? He rests much of his case on denying the sharp dichotomy. I find this shaky.

Mr. Wise's recommendation of "legal personhood" for animals is intellectually interesting and worth the extended discussion he provides. Without it, he says, however, "you might as well be dead." And animals now are without it.

But are they in fact "as good as dead?" Many states have laws aimed at protecting animals against abuses, and mistreated animals often are seized by the authorities. I do not doubt that such laws need to be extended and toughened, and that enforcement needs to be adequately funded. I do not see how wandering into the legal thicket of "personhood" is an effective way of advancing the protection of animals. After all, human beings with that cerebral cortex are in control and write the laws and enforce them or fail to do so. Directly legislating decent treatment strikes me as more likely to succeed than granting animals abstract rights which, in any event, would have to be enforced by humans.

Nor is it always true that animals "kidnapped," as Mr. Wise puts it, by humans are worse off than animals in the wild state. Everyone closely acquainted with animals has seen an animal expand its capacities, even discover a new range of feeling, through participating in a human environment. The animal seems to become more intelligent; C.S. Lewis thought even more spiritual. Animal life in the wild is often a matter of striving to be the diner rather than the dinner.

Mr. Wise, I must add, needlessly damages his case by providing in his first chapter a sloppy and denigrative survey of Western philosophy. Much of what he says is superficial or wrong, and his tone is very unfortunate, as when he refers to a "trio of Greek philosophers, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, who often passed ideas from one to the next like Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Mr. Wise gives a very strong argument for the protection of wildlife as early as Page 6: "When the last century turned, there were 5 million wild chimpanzees in Africa … By 1998, only 20,000 remained." Yes, population pressure and idiotic exploitation is conducting what amounts to a mindless war of extermination against many animals.

But what sort of human being would like to live in a world without Mr. Wise's chimpanzees? Do they not, by existing, enhance the whole? How about elephants, zebras, lions, whales, owls, sea turtles, alligators, even sharks and poisonous snakes? They are all part of the gorgeous panoply. Their preservation will require the establishment of large reserves well-run and benignly patrolled, and this will require acts of political creativity.

Theodore Roosevelt, James Audubon, Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, Raymond Ditmars. Where are you now that we need you? I do not see their like among today's "conservatives."

Jeffrey Hart is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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