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Legal Efforts for Chimps Doesn’t Get to the Heart of Animal Rights Challenge

Released: 12/9/2013 12:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Cornell University
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Newswise — Sherry Colb is the Charles Evans Hughes Scholar at Cornell Law School, a former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and an expert on constitutional law and animal rights. She is the author of the book “Mind If I Order the Cheeseburger? And Other Questions People Ask Vegans” which explores the ethics of veganism and humanity’s relationship to animals. She says the NonHuman Rights Project habeas corpus petition on behalf of chimpanzees in captivity is well intended, but ultimately a legal distraction from the cultural awakening that needs to occur before animal exploitation will end.

Colb says:

“I sympathize a great deal with the attempt to utilize the legal tools that we have to achieve the most basic of rights for nonhuman animals. Such basic rights would include, for example, a right not to exploited as a commodity or “thing” and to be free of human violence.

“Yet I am simultaneously profoundly skeptical of efforts to use the law directly to raise the status of nonhuman animals, and I think this habeas corpus petition may illustrate some of why that is.

“First, relying on legal instruments crafted for humans practically demands the argument that a particular nonhuman animal closely resembles a human animal in some way that entitles him or her to what are presumptively designated as “human” rights. An attorney facing this challenge is then in the regrettable position of having to divide sentient animals into “human-like” and “non-human-like” categories. This move – at best – gives a small number of animals protection as “honorary humans” while demeaning the status of other animals who lack whatever the human-like quality in question happens to be.

“Second, to say that a chimpanzee is a legal person, even as the United States also permits biomedical experimentation on these animals, is to engage in labeling with little substantive payoff. If a chimpanzee is already a ‘legal person’ for trust purposes, as is now provided by New York law, yet at the same time can still be used in biomedical experiments, then the status of legal person apparently leaves chimpanzees where it found them.

“What needs to happen before any direct challenges to the legal status of animals can make a substantial difference is a change in how people approach animals in general – not just human-like animals, but all sentient animals.

“The first step in that process is for people to recognize the nonhuman presence in their own lives, through the consumption of animal products, such as eggs, dairy and flesh, that condemns beings who feel pleasure, pain and emotional bonds, to torture and slaughter. It is this powerful recognition – and the corresponding decision to stop participating in exploiting animals – that will ultimately bring about the necessary foundation in consciousness for meaningful legal rights for animals to emerge, rather than a patchwork of ‘exceptions’ to the overarching legal principle that humans may do what they please to the nonhumans of this world.”

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