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