More Human Than Human?

Male orangutan in the wild (possibly old college roommate).

Male orangutan in the wild (possibly old college roommate).

by Gene Howington

Normally if you called Sandra a “non-human person”, you might get slapped in the face. However, in this instance, Sandra is a 29-year-old Sumatran orangutan at the Buenos Aires zoo.  What makes this more interesting is that it is an Argentine court doing the name calling. Using a tactic previously tried in U.S. courts the petitioners filed a writ of habeas corpus (in Latin “produce the body”) usually used to challenge a person’s imprisonment or detention, in a suit filed in November on Sandra’s behalf by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA) argued the ape had sufficient cognitive functions and should not be treated as an object. The lower court agreed and the Buenos Aires zoo has 10 days to file an appeal. This is contrary to the view held in the United States (and elsewhere) that animals are property under civil law.

Earlier this month a New York court denied a similar bid for the freedom of ‘Tommy’ – a privately owned chimpanzee – in ruling along the lines of precedent that the chimp was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus. In a 2011 case dismissed by a San Diego court, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) had filed a lawsuit against marine park operator SeaWorld which alleged five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. This new legal development is being heralded as a much needed change by animal rights advocates around the world. The legal implications, especially if the ruling is upheld, could be quite significant in the long run.

This in itself is an interesting question. Should we recognize a higher level of inherent rights in animals other than mankind?  But let’s consider another aspect of this argument/phenomena as well.

Over the years, many stories have appeared in the media that show outrage at pets being treated as simply property. Speaking for himself and not as a matter of dogma, Pope Francis recently implied that animals “have souls” by comforting a young boy grieving the death of his dog that “Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.” As erroneously reported by most major news outlets, the comment “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures” was actually made by Pope Paul VI sometime before his death in 1978. Regardless of what one thinks of the theological arguments, it is hard not to recognize through both direct contact with animals and what science tells us that some animals have both self-awareness and an inner (even emotional) life. That being said, that same knowledge base also informs us that the view of Descartes was essentially right and that some animals are little more than “automata”. For a high functioning animal like an orangutan (whose name means “forest man”), it is a fairly easy distinction to make. When the death of Robin Williams was in the news, it was reported that Koko the gorilla was depressed upon being told of the comic’s death. Almost everyone knows a story about a dog or a cat mourning the death of “an owner”.  But no one seems too concerned that fish or insects are sapient beings. As a species, we tend to limit that kind of empathy to the family of mammals. Certain species of octopi have demonstrated in the lab that they have both memory and high level problem solving abilities that indicate they are far more intelligent than most people would think.

I've got this stuff all over me . . . and it itches!

I’ve got this stuff all over me . . . and it itches!

Perhaps our ability to recognize sapient beings is intrinsically limited by our biological biases.  This is indeed one of the great questions that plagues SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). One of the dominant themes in scientist and science fiction author David Brin‘s Uplift series is the ability to not only recognize sapience in other life forms but to actively “uplift” it, the primary reason an advanced pan-galactic culture choosing not to destroy Earth upon discovery being that we had already begun to uplift chimps and dolphins.

Is this more than just a legal trend? Is this trend important legally and/or socially?

How can we ever find, let alone understand, alien intelligence if we don’t find and recognize it in the creatures surrounding us on Earth?

What do you think?

Source(s): Reuters, The Christian Science Monitor

NOTE: Edited to correct statements of Pope Paul VI erroneously attributed to Pope Francis and add the correct quote.


About Gene Howington

I write and do other stuff.
This entry was posted in Argentina, Biology, Civil Law, Civil Liberties, Evolution, Exobiology, Jurisprudence, Legal Theory, Weird News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to More Human Than Human?

  1. Bob Stone says:

    “Should we recognize a higher level of inherent rights in animals other than mankind?”

    Yes. But that does not entitle them to all human rights; thus the animal distinction.

    Perhaps when I prove the existence of God we’ll finally know whether all dogs go to heaven. I’m betting they do.

    Meanwhile, it wasn’t Pope Francis that made the remark you mentioned.

  2. Thanks, Bob. Usually the CSM is better on fact checking than that.

  3. Bob Stone says:


  4. Bob Stone says:

    Never mind.

  5. po says:

    Great topic, and great questions raised. I do think that it should be recognized in animals a higher level of animal rights, but the main issue I see is that any talk about human animal rights generally targets only 2 of the main 4 subgroups of animals. For example, we are generally willing to give higher rights to apes and to other “majestic” animals such as lions and tigers, for their existence is not directly linked to ours. We coexist, and their lives are not directly tied to ours.
    The second group is the domestic animals that serve a specific domestic service and which we do not eat (dogs, cats, horses), and the 3rd group is the domestic animals we eat (cows, sheep), and the 4th group would be the animals, such as fish and insects, whom we tend to deem sentient by not sapient.
    That’s where the issue gets complicated because from the moment we accept that some animals can be eaten, those higher rights cannot be therefore extended to those animals, and if that right is refused the cow, it is necessarily refused the lion, and most of us would not give the ape a higher right over the lion, though emotionally, we might feel closer to the former.

  6. Mike Spindell says:


    The question you pose is an interesting one. Having had both dogs and cats in my life there is little doubt that they exhibit traits of individuality, can have their feelings hurt and recognize those that they have bonded with. We humans are far too proud of ourselves and our accomplishments. We have used religion to put us above the reality of our being just another species of animal and used our philosophies to justify our sense of “morality” which is merely another way of denying our natures as animals. The entire medieval notion of the “mind-body” split postulated by Christian theorists tried to set us apart from our animal heritage.

    To me its’ importance lies in the fact that we humans have justified our excesses through the years by the notion that we are somehow separate from and lords over, our world environment, We are in fact merely sharers of the world we live in with all the other life existing upon it. Whether this is a step towards greater human understanding, or merely a blip in our path towards destroying our world in the service of profit, who knows. My guess is that there will be a negative reaction to this among many who believe that somehow there is a deity that favors humanity over the rest of creation and will miss completely the greater issue of humanity’s overweening pride in itself.

  7. bettykath says:

    Kudos to the Argentine court. I’d like to see this become the first of many such decisions. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I remove spiders and snakes. They cannot live with me but they can live outside in the garden. I try to keep ants out, but if they persist they’re dead. My dog already thinks he’s a human but he defers to my judgement unless he gets out without the leash then he’s like the 9 year old boy who sneaked out his bedroom window.

  8. Oro Lee says:

    One of my favorite Native American stories begins, “Back when all the animals spoke the same language, the grass-eaters said to the humans . . .

  9. Inga says:

    Yes. Maybe it’s because dogs have been bred to be human companions for thousands of years that they have such ‘human’ traits. Even cats seem to know when the owner is upset, there is a level of communication. Primates most definitely can think on even a higher level, it is cruel to keep them locked up in small enclosures, yet we can’t deny that medical advances have been made because of experimentation on these poor animals. I wish there was some way that animals would’nt have to be used in such a way. Realistically, even eating the meat of thinking animals could give one pause. I just watched the Temple Grandin movie, she grasped the need to humanely kill beef cattle, without resorting to saying people should become vegetatarians.

  10. bron98 says:

    interesting article.

    how much of what animals do is purely instinct and learned vs actual thought to solve problems? To train a dog to do simple tasks for the handicapped takes a couple of years of repetative training. They literally re-wire the dogs brain. A dog also bonds with the person who feeds him, it is just that simple.

    As much as it would be fun to talk with animals, they just dont have much going on upstairs. Should they be treated humanely? Of course. I dont eat much pork, beef or lamb, mostly chicken and fish. But I think extending them rights is a big mistake because they dont have a concept of individual rights. Nor do I think they could ever understand.

  11. pete says:

    They literally re-wire the dogs brain. A dog also bonds with the person who feeds him, it is just that simple.

    Actually, you can train a pig to do that too, but you can’t get bacon from a dog.

  12. po says:

    Actually, you can train a pig to do that too, but you can’t get bacon from a dog.
    Beautiful Pete!

    This does indeed raise many questions beyond the obvious…Bron brings up one of such, which is, are rights attached to the awareness of them? Then we would have to move into the realm of are human beings who are mentally incapacitated not deserving of rights?
    Also, considering that many animals are pretty smart, at least to the level of a small child, should we not extend those rights to children?
    Obviously not, but I think it shows that awareness and level of intelligence are not the defining factors behind extending human rights to animals.
    In the religious realm, at least in islam, animals are sentient and sapient…there is the story of Prophet Solomon who could understand the speech of animals and heard one ant warning the others to take care not to be trampled by his troops…there is also the story of his speaking to the oopee and sending him on errands.

    In my own life of having raised various animals, I am certainly aware that though they do not operate at the same level of awareness as we do, that awareness is there, and we can tap into it if not verbally, at least in some form of emotional/ non-verbal way.

    It may be just coincidental, but because I hate to kill anything, I started attempting to communicate with my pests (mice that eat the chicken feed, ants, spiders, bee swarms…). I tried to tune into a higher, common wavelength and “told ” the mice that they can share in the chicken feed as long as they stop shitting in it (yeah, they have that bad habit), and also that they are no longer welcome in the house. I warned them that I would hunt them down if they did, but as long as they refrained, I’d accommodate them. Well, going on one year without mice droppings in the chicken feed and house invasion
    I am sure I’d have to renew the pact with the next generations, but hey, if it works!

  13. Inga says:

    I told a mouse once that I’d sic my cat on it, it ignored me.

  14. po says:

    Yeah, Inga, can’t reason with all of them…some are pretty stubborn! 🙂

  15. mespo727272 says:

    On the topic of orangutans, I made my weekly look-in at the RIL zoo and went straight to the nick cage. Seems he managed to insult both rafflaw and Gene in the same comment as his pants were hung out over yet another outright lie about raff’s position on the Second Amendment. To top it off, he explained that raff was no friend of the First Amendment either. Yes, I laughed at that one, too. Raff gave more than he got but Nick declared himself the winner again and off he went on to describe just the latest of his stupendous accomplishments. He’s a riot and reminiscent of that cartoon blowhard, Commander McBragg. Sometimes if I need a laugh I lurk on a thread or two. I am rarely disappointed.

  16. mespo,
    Yup. Kind of like watching a slow motion train wreck.

  17. That’s a terrible thing to say about orangutans, Mark.
    They are highly intelligent (next to man, probably the smartest primate) and quite gentle.
    nick is more howler monkey or perhaps a chimp with distemper.
    An ill-tempered vervet with a nasty rash at best.
    (Thanks for the blast from the past too. I hadn’t thought of Cmdr. McBragg in years.)

  18. mespo727272 says:

    My apologies to the orangutans. More like red-butted baboons. From all the spanking, you know.


    I taking over/unders on when that comments section explodes. I place the line at 8 months.

  19. mespo,
    Even the Roman Empire came to an end. And look at what happened to the “Thousand Year Reich.”

    As it is, according to Alexa numbers, we are one of the fastest growing blogs on the internet. Few blogs get past where we were at the end of last February. Hang onto your hat, we must be doing something right.

  20. bron98 says:


    “Then we would have to move into the realm of are human beings who are mentally incapacitated not deserving of rights?”

    They dont have the same rights a fully functioning adult human has and neither do children.

    At some point along the spectrum of consciousness we allow humans to be killed. Abortion and withholding water and nutrition as in the case of Terry Schiavo. So I am not sure why all the concern for animals when we kill our own as well who have limited awareness.

    I am personally against abortion and “mercy” killing off humans who are like Terry Schiavo, unless that is their personal choice.

  21. po says:

    Bron, mentally incapacity adults, and children do have inherent rights that are inalienable no matter their mental state.

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