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Jewish World Review June 7, 2002 /27 Sivan, 5762

Tom Purcell

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Consumer Reports

Legal rights for animals? | It's the kind of talk they give here in Washington, D.C.

Steve Wise is a lawyer and the author of the book "Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights." His talk a week back was on a controversial subject: Why some animals should be given legal rights. I read about it in the Washington Post.

"Certain species are capable of complex emotions, can communicate using language, and have a sense of self," said Wise. "I don't see a difference between a chimpanzee and my 4 1/2-year-old son."

If that's the case, sir, then perhaps your son could use a shave. And a banana.

Wise said that some species should be given rights because they are similar to humans. He says chimps, for instance, have complex social interactions. They use tools, count, do sign language (at a 4-year-old human's level) and demonstrate an idea of the future, while remembering the past.

He says that when you give a mirror to an orangutan, he uses it to explore parts of his body he can't see otherwise. This indicates a sense of self, he says. It's also a sign that orangutans have too much free time on their hands.

The dolphin is a fine animal. The dolphin can solve problems, cooperate with humans in complex ways, distinguish sense from nonsense and imitate behavior. Dolphins also have a sense of self, but, without opposable thumbs, I guess they are unable to hold onto a mirror to prove it.

The African elephant demonstrates highly evolved emotions, memory and learning ability, says Wise. This is why, I guess, an elephant hardly ever steps in its own dung - at least not twice.

That brings us to the gorilla. Wise says that gorilla and human DNA are 97.7 percent identical. Gorillas use tools, solve problems, imitate, pretend, even use deception to get their way, he says.

Hey, so do most members of Congress, but we don't write special laws to protect them.

Wise even makes the case for the honeybee. After reviewing research on the matter, he learned that honeybees "have the second most complex natural language after human beings." They do?

Honeybee: "Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz."
Human translation: "Bzzz, bzzz, bzzz."

Perhaps the complex natural language of honeybees is one reason we encourage our elementary school students to participate in "spelling bees."

Anyhow, after setting out his evidence that some animals are like humans, what does Wise want? He wants them to have, in lawyer terminology, "basic rights of bodily integrity and bodily liberty."

Human translation: A species that is given legal rights could no longer be viewed as a thing. Zoos and carnivals would not be able to detain and use animals for entertainment purposes. And medical labs would not be allowed to use them for testing.

"You have an anencephalic child born with no brain and we give that child a whole panoply of rights," says Wise. "And you have animals" who have complex and bright minds and they're treated like chairs."

That's not entirely true. We don't eat chairs.

On one hand, Wise, and other animal activists, are motivated by compassion, and that is not a bad thing. In a civilized society, we protect the weak and ensure the rights and dignity of every human. I see nothing wrong with showing respect for other beings. (Except for bugs. I hate bugs.)

But what does trouble me about this rights-for-animals concept is how it attempts to elevate animals to the status of humans, which is absurd. When was the last time you saw a dolphin do calculus, construct a bridge or bilk other dolphins out of their life savings?

Only humans have moral capacity, the free will to do right or wrong. We are, said Mark Twain, the only animals who blush - or who need to.

"Notice no one is expecting animals to be kind, compassionate, considerate of their own victims, stop being carnivorous if they are, and so forth," said Tibor Machan, a philosopher and professor of business ethics, in the Post article. "That's because the only moral animals are human beings."

Look, Wise and other animal rights people are going the wrong way entirely. Instead of extending new rights to animals, shouldn't we first consider limiting the rights we already give to some humans?

I remember the story of one fellow some years back who tied heavy-duty weather balloons to his lawn chair. If I remember correctly, he was spotted by a 747 - at cruising altitude.

And yet this fellow still has the right to vote.

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© 2002, Tom Purcell