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What is the Non-human Rights Project? And Why It's Absurd

Updated on December 4, 2013
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

The support for non-human rights in these times is rising, albeit in differing extents, amongst the population. Misunderstanding of what exactly this movement may mean for our society is prevalent on both sides of the fence (i.e, the 'rights' being campaigned for are that of 'bodily integrity' and will not apply to marriage, voting, ect.). Animal suffering is not a joke or something that shouldn't be taken seriously. But is distributing 'non-human rights' the answer? And which animals should qualify when we have such limited understanding of animal minds? We do know that crafty lawyers have now been dispatched from the radical animal rights side, and it must be made clear in our legislative rhetoric that the arbitrary whims of select scientists and lawyers should not overhaul common sense.


In An Earlier Case, Sea World Got Sued...

For violating the 13th amendment. The plaintiffs were Orca whales (Orcinus orca) that reside in the Sea World Orlando park. *Update*, the Non-human rights project has now filed its first case on behalf of a chimpanzee.

Obviously, since dolphins cannot represent themselves, the park was sued on their behalf by the publicity-hungry, radical animal rights extremist group, The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The judge ruled that Sea World was not guilty of perpetuating slavery against their killer whales because killer whales are not humans, like a sane judge should. While many people groan at the presence of PETA and their continuously inane attention-grabbing stunts, there is actually a growing sentiment and rights movement with seemingly less radical supporters that 100% would like to validate PETA's claim.

Most people would probably assume that the term ‘human right’ would maintain a criterion of only applying to humans. Now, many animal rights groups are unsurprisingly challenging this, and attempting to blur the line between human and non-human animal intelligence and awareness.

Animal Rights vs. Welfare

"Wise [Stephen Wise, lawyer for the chimpanzee], for his part, contends that legal personhood for a limited number of species—at least in the short term—is the most defensible and effective solution."

People often take comfort from the specious arguments pushed by activists (along with video and photos of atrocities that clearly violate animal welfare principals) that seemingly seek to protect 'only' the rights of certain species. It is claimed that this issue is about logically addressing the 'person-hood' qualities of specific animals that meet such criteria (dolphins, elephants, some birds, and great apes). While the current data elevates the relative intelligence of this group of animals, other studies are always surfacing that may reveal higher cognitive qualities of animals even such as chickens. Therefore, while we attribute complex cognition to animals like dolphins and apes, it's still possible, in the very immature field of comparative animal psychology, that these animals may not be miles ahead of the others as we've originally believed (but all are obviously miles 'below' us). Why is this significant? There is clearly a larger agenda here.

If you have any pet, any pet, this affects you. If you ride horses, this affects you. If you support zoos, nature centers, or any form of live animal-based educational program, this will affect you.If you eat animal-based foods, this obviously affects you. If you wish for research on human illness to continue, this affects you. And if you have friends, family, or respect other cultures that do these things, this affects you.


Animal liberation

The animal rights movement equates to the philosophy of animal liberation, an ideology that seeks to end human interaction, interference, and use of non-human animals in any way, essentially giving them the ‘human rights’ that are applicable to them (for example, obviously, chimps and whales cannot vote or maintain citizenship).

It is extremely important to be able to recognize the difference between this, and animal welfare, which is the ethic of considering and addressing an animal’s well-being while it is being used for human benefit, while also discouraging ‘unnecessary’ acts of cruelty and taking their lives (such as dog fighting, the ivory trade and fur production).

Essentially, if animal rights ideology were to be followed, we’d have to call into question dog ownership (and what gives us the right to declare them not self-aware, when our flimsy testing for this ability is based mainly on sight, when their main sensory system is based on scent?), which supports a flourishing dog trade that inevitably results in their suffering and exploitation. Humans would have no ‘right’ to subject dogs to the oppressive treatment of being ‘property’ for a human. With animal rights, an animal’s will trumps human desire in every situation.

Self-awareness in magpies

Rights are only entitled to humans...and dolphins

So why is it that so many people who may not support the true values of the animal rights philosophy often believe that whales, dolphins, and some select species should be entitled to ‘rights’ based on their touted intelligence and so-called ‘person-hood’?

Humans may often overlook the intelligence of these animals and be surprised to recognize some of their capabilities, but many people are now attempting to make this appear as speciest bigotry and purport that essentially, cetaceans are aquatic humans who should be entitled to the same freedoms as us.

Their rationale is that dolphins and whales have intelligence ‘above’ other animals, such as self-awareness and a higher capacity to learn and interact with their environment.

Animal rights groups adopt the support of similarly-thinking individuals in the scientific community such as Dr. Lori Marino and Naomi A. Rose to supposedly back up their ideological beliefs with science to continue their swindling. Yet their beliefs are mere opinion on what attributes entitle an animal to rights over others, and the majority of the populace's ignorance to the cognitive psychology debate is ruthlessly exploited by Marino.


Is it supported by the scientific community?

Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, and (unsurprisingly) a vegetarian, began campaigning to keep dolphins out of captivity when 2 captive dolphins she was studying died after a move to another facility in their 20s (Lori describes this as a "premature death", yet on average and based on locale, dolphins can expect to live 17-25 years in the wild).

Dr. Marino flaunts 20 years of experience studying dolphins and their brains, and visits hearings on captive cetaceans delivering emotionally fueled attacks on zoological facilities.

Supporters of the cetacean and non-human rights movements outline their own qualities that they believe entitle any animal to the rights of 'bodily integrity' and non-interference. What is the true reason that humans have 'rights', and who gets to determine this?

She also criticizes institutions that allow the mentally disabled to interact with captive dolphins, and challenges the idea that zoos contribute to conservation or promote awareness toward the plight of animals in the wild (she has published studies simply to refute other studies that suggest that zoos have a positive impact on public awareness and education).

Fueled by her beliefs of dolphin awareness allegedly based on her studies, she is convinced, she says, that their complex brain attributes and ability to recognize themselves in the mirror (an experiment she pioneered), suggests that they are ‘self-aware’ and conscious in ways that are not unique to ourselves, which means that we should all hold the ethic that captivity is immoral to inflict on dolphins.

Gorillas at the Bronx Zoo
Gorillas at the Bronx Zoo | Source

However, here is where that line of thinking becomes sketchy. Again, there is a difference between animal rights and animal welfare. Dr. Marino is good at giving scientific analysis that shun the progress of zoos, but has anyone considered just what it is about a dolphin’s so-called ‘awareness’ that would entitle them to all of the applicable rights of humans over other animals?

Marino will say that dolphins are 'aware' or conscious to the same extent that a human is. This however says nothing about the thoughts or beliefs that the animals may possess about their situation.

It is true that as a whole captive cetaceans have questionable well-being in aquariums (bottle-nose dolphins are by far the most successful) for varying factors, and Marino alleges that this is due to their complex social structures and natural range (also possibly true). However, this is an issue with other species of animals, with less ‘complex brains’. Dolphins are one species which are difficult to promote the well-being of in captivity, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. In addition, most zoo animals, if not all of them, cannot roam their natural range, which is why anti-captive dolphin sentiment easily promotes anti-captive animal sentiment entirely.

A person interested in animal welfare should be concerned about the well-being of inherently social animals that are being prevented from that form of enrichment, but an animal rights follower follows the ideological concept that any animal should never be kept captive due to the will and benefit of humans, regardless of who it benefits, be it animal or human.

Selective non-human rights followers are just as guilty of species bias

How can we justify the ethical idea that the thoughts, desires, and emotions of animal species that apparently lack the brain complexity of cetaceans, elephants, and great apes do not count on the basis that they are ‘un-human-like’ in their brain size, complexity, and awareness demonstrations that are tested and judged to the satisfaction of the human observer? How can followers of the cetaceans rights movement accuse humans of oppressing the lives of intelligent creatures through alleged species-specific discrimination when they are pushing for the same logic to suggest that animals of their determination should maintain human rights based on attributes of their determination while other animals are judged and discriminated against for not measuring up to that same level of intelligence, thusly making it “moral” to deny them ‘rights’ of any kind?

What's next?

This is where the animal rights movement meets a conflict. Many people object to the use of animals for displays in zoos (mere ‘entertainment’) and for scientific research.

However, the divide between these animals makes no sense. How can one animal maintain such an extraordinary consideration from humans, such as having the right to not be caught or interfered with from humans, as well as the fact that we would need to consider the effects we are having on them indirectly with our activities (such as with oceanic sonar), while other animals do not have rights at all due to their lack of self-awareness, making them fair game for research, pet use, and other invasions? I see an inherent moral conflict in acknowledging rights for one species based on traits we consider close to ourselves, and fully denying the same to other animals (and so do many others).

Monkeys have shown very remarkable cognition, but do not perform well on some other tests compared to apes.
Monkeys have shown very remarkable cognition, but do not perform well on some other tests compared to apes. | Source

So, where is the line?

It cannot exist. With the logic being promoted by Marino and other followers, chimps, being ‘self-aware’, cannot be interfered with, but monkeys will get nothing. Can ‘partial rights’ be possible? Based on whose judgment?

Essentially, given that cetaceans are drastically different from humans, lacking a truly complex language in representational ability and ideological expression, it becomes more clear that cetacean rights begins with these aquatic animals, and ends with liberation for all animal species if there is to be any adherence to the moral consistency that the non-human rights movement demands. Non-human animals no longer need to meet the complexities and attributes of humans to be considered for rights. I don’t see why the criteria should be halted at ‘culture’ and ‘self-awareness’.

Unsurprisingly, Lori Marino and others who share her views do follow this sentiment and promote veganism.

So before buying into non-human rights sophist arguments, read between the lines and consider the implications. The demands of animal rights groups are mere arbitrary opinions that do not differ from their demands for the public to stop eating meat. By exploiting the public's affinity for dolphins (especially now, with anti-captivity sentiment rising after the movie Blackfish), the ultimate goal of their rhetoric is to introduce legislation in which they can continue to legally push for their ideological agendas and control the cultures, traditions, occupational pursuits and lifestyles of others. We should favor the philosophy of animal welfare, and not lose sight of the alternate perspectives and needs of people.


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