April 28, 2022

An Elephant Goes to Court

Elephants are very special animals: intelligent, complicated, intense, tender, powerful and funny…. social, emotional, personable, imitative, respectful of ancestors, playful, self-aware, compassionate – these are qualities that would gain most of us membership to an exclusive club.

One day in 1971, an infant female elephant was abducted from a herd in Thailand, apparently after both her mother and other females who might have protected her were killed. The killer had other plans for this baby elephant. She would soon be crated up and shipped across the Pacific so that she could become a captive prize of a zoo for most of the rest of her life.

In writing these blogs about the human-inflicted suffering of animals, I have been trying to imagine how the animals affected might feel. In other words, to endeavor to see the world through their eyes. For my part, I can’t help wondering how frightening the experience must have been for this newly born elephant to see her mother and other females murdered, and then to be captured, boxed up in darkness for days, to eventually find herself in a strange land, alone, bereft, and scared.

For some reason, I find myself thinking of how when the Lindbergh baby, the young son of Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, was kidnapped in 1932, and then eventually found to have been murdered, everyone in America, it seems, and elsewhere, had been aware of it and sorrowed with the Lindberghs for their devastating loss. But in the forests of Thailand, of course, there was no one but the killer to hear the cries of the baby elephant, and certainly no one left to mourn her disappearance. What a horrible way for a life to begin. 

You will not believe the irony when I tell you that this elephant, when she found herself in America, was given the name Happy. She and six other Asian baby elephants were all named after Walt Disney’s seven dwarfs. And some of them wound up becoming circus performers. Such was the ludicrous fate of these magnificent animals as it was for Happy, too – to become mere fodder for the amusement of children, Dumbo come to life. A trainer of that era described Happy as “a more physical elephant than anything I’ve seen,” explaining, “That’s why I put all the physical tricks on her—the hind-leg stand, the sit-up.”

Eventually, however, Happy was spared further such indignities. For many years now, she has been a denizen of the Bronx Zoo. She is old now, but if you live in New York, you can still see her in her pen. And if you did see her, what exactly would you see?

In a long article about Happy in a recent issue of The New Yorker by Lawrence Wright, we find this description:

Happy’s pen, at the Wild Asia exhibit in the Bronx Zoo, exemplifies the aesthetic of late-twentieth-century zoo design: creating the illusion of a natural habitat and disguising, as much as possible, the fact of captivity. There is a beaten path, which Happy has trodden alone for the past sixteen years, encircling a small pond with water lilies, where she can bathe and wallow. Leafy trees surround a one-acre enclosure, which is dominated by an artificial dead tree trunk, artfully fashioned with hollows and scaling bark. The enclosure has to be cleaned constantly, as a female Asian elephant can eat up to four hundred pounds of vegetation a day and excrete about sixty per cent of that. From November to May, when the New York weather can be cold, [she and another animal] are reportedly quartered in separate stalls scarcely twice the length of their bodies.

Joyce Poole is one of the world’s foremost students of elephants, who began studying them in 1975, at a camp near Mt. Kilimanjaro. According to Wright, Poole was given the opportunity to view videos of Happy in her pen, and had this to say about what she saw:

Poole observed only five activities or behaviors: standing and facing the fence; lifting one or two feet off the ground, perhaps to take the weight off painful, diseased feet; dusting herself; eating grass; and swinging her trunk in what appears to be “stereotypic” behavior—the kind of repetitive action sometimes displayed by animals who are bored or mentally unbalanced. “Only two, dusting and eating grass, are natural,” Poole testified. “Alone, in a small space, there is little else for her to do.”

Such has been Happy’s lot for the past sixteen years, though she has been at the zoo since 1977. Try to imagine what she has felt like all these years, day after monotonous day. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway: This is not the kind of life that an elephant was meant lead. So the question we must confront in due course is what gives us the right to confine an animal like Happy like this for years on end, and does she herself have any rights? Maybe this is a matter for the courts to decide.

But first, in order to fully grasp the chronic predicament that a captive elephant like Happy is faced with, we must learn or remind ourselves what a normal life of a young female elephant is like.

To begin with – and this is fundamental – elephants, like ourselves, are social creatures, and, like ourselves, they live in families that are deeply and intimately connected with a larger social network. These families are headed by a matriarch, and females tend to stay with her and their sisters for the rest of their lives. It is inconceivable for a female elephant to live outside the ambit of her family and the greater social community in which her family is embedded.

Second, elephants, in order to find enough to eat and drink, must roam over vast distances, following the lead of the older, wise matriarch who knows where to find the means of sustenance all elephants need. The family also provides protection for the young females against any threat to their survival from other animals, including ourselves. In fact, the greatest danger they face is from poachers who kill elephants for their tusks.

Joyce Poole has compared elephants to whales and lions who need vast amounts of space in which to roam:

Their social lives demand it. Elephants are complex enough to weigh the challenges they face. They discuss among themselves and make collective decisions. You take that away and you take away what it means to be an elephant ... All we can do is give them more space.

Poole went on to indicate that she rejects the idea that elephants are safer in zoos than in nature.  

They have a better chance of living to old age in the wild. They don’t suffer the diseases of captivity – obesity, arthritis, foot ailments, behavioral abnormalities, and infanticide. Is it better for them to face poachers. I think it is.

Furthermore, elephants, who are the largest terrestrial animals left on earth, have a correspondingly huge brain, capable of complex thinking, including imitation, memory (their memories are legendary) and cooperative problem solving. And they experience the same range of emotions as do we humans – joy, altruism, compassion, empathy, and grief. They are also aware of and are able to mentally represent the knowledge, beliefs and emotional states of other elephants. And, as we shall see, there is no doubt that they are self-aware and conscious beings like ourselves.

Moreover, human beings and elephants have nearly identical nervous and hormonal systems, senses, milk for babies, and respond as we do with fear or aggression to threats of danger.

Of course, elephants cannot speak, but they definitely can communicate over vast distances and have a variety of calls –- roars, cries, rumbles, snorts and various trumpet-like sounds -- that convey meaning to other elephants. They can even pick up these signals with their feet.

If you read about the lives and especially the social nature of elephants – Carl Safina, for example, who has spent time with Cynthia Moss and Joyce Poole, writes beautifully about elephants in his book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel – you cannot help but marvel at what nature has created in these magnificent animals who share so many features with us humans.

And once you take this in, you can see how obscene it is to rip a young elephant away from her family and community, from the social world which gives meaning to her life, and then pen her up in a small enclosure by herself for the rest of her life so that we can come by and ogle her at our pleasure.  Would we ever do this to a child? Then why ever would we do this to another conscious, self-aware creature like ourselves in so many ways who has no means to defend herself? Who speaks for the elephant who cannot speak and who has no weapons with which to protect herself?

It seems we must leave her defense to the lawyers, and that’s exactly what is happening now to Happy. She is still in her pen, but her future is now being adjudicated in the courts of our land. 

Indeed, the case of Happy actually began several years ago, in September, 2019, in a crowded courtroom of the Supreme Court of New York. Representing the interests of Happy were attorneys for an organization called the Nonhuman Rights Project (or NhRP), which had been founded in 1998 by an animal rights activist named Steven Wise. Kenneth Manning spoke on behalf of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo. In Manning’s opening statement, he pointed out that a half dozen previous cases brought by NhRP in support of the rights of chimpanzees had already failed in New York courts. Quoting from the ruling of one of those decisions, Manning read the court’s verdict: “The asserted cognitive and linguistic capabilities of a chimpanzee do not translate to a chimpanzee’s capacity or ability, like humans, to bear legal duties, or to be held legally accountable for their actions,” and therefore the animal could not be entitled to habeas corpus.  In short, chimps are not entitled legally to the rights pertaining to persons. So why should those rights be granted to elephants?

The NhRP’s attorney attempted to counter that judgment by arguing that “probably ten percent of the human population of New York State has rights, but cannot bear responsibilities, either because they are infants or they are children or they are insane or they are in comas or whatever.”
Manning urged the presiding justice, Alison Tuitt, to follow precedent: “The law remains well settled that an animal in New York simply does not have access to the habeas-corpus relief, and that’s reserved for humans. So, there is nothing in this case dealing with any claim of mistreatment or malnourishment or anything with respect to Happy the Elephant.” Manning summarized, “In short, your Honor, Happy is happy where she is.”

Various experts on both sides then weighed in. Director of the Bronx Zoo, James Breheny, stated that the Wildlife Conservation Society had “led the charge to help stop the ruthless slaughter of 35,000 African elephants each year for the ivory trade.” Furthermore, Breheny fumed, “We are forced to defend ourselves against a group that doesn’t know us or the animal in question, who has absolutely no legal standing, and is demanding to take control over the life and future of an elephant that we have known and cared for over 40 years.” He went on, “They continue to waste court resources to promote their radical philosophical view of ‘personhood.’”

According to the NhRP, however, it has repeatedly offered to drop the case if the zoo consents to send Happy to one of two sanctuaries, in Tennessee and in California, that have indicated a readiness to accept her. The zoo has steadfastly refused this offer. It regards Happy as its property and responsibility. End of story.

Except it isn’t.

As the case continued, it sparked a lively and sometimes acrimonious debate between the advocates of traditional animal welfare policies and those who favored the animal rights approach of Steven Wise and his NhPR colleagues. Peter Singer, the celebrated proponent of animal liberation whose 1975 book with that title was the catalyst for Wise, signed on, arguing that the real issue was not the cognitive abilities of animals, but whether they were capable of suffering. The venerable and much venerated Jane Goodall, who became world-famous for her field research on chimpanzees, also came on board, as did the distinguished legal scholar Harvard Law School Professor Laurence H. Tribe, who filed an amicus brief in support of a habeas corpus petition (NhRP) on behalf of Happy and NhRP. 

In this brief, Tribe wrote: 

Happy is an autonomous and sentient Asian elephant who evolved to lead a physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially complex life. Every day for forty years, her imprisonment by the Bronx Zoo has deprived her of this life.

On the other side, an equally prominent Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, who is best known for his work on linguistics (and who writes beautifully on language usage and style – see his wonderfully engaging book, Sense of Style) takes strong issue with the approach of Wise and NhRP.

Asked whether he thought current animal welfare laws were sufficient to protect animals, he admitted, “Probably not,” but went on to say:

There are countless ways of strengthening them without, say, granting personhood to chickens. It seems more rhetorical than morally sound to take a concept that was designed for us in the first place and try to shoehorn very different species in ... If our concern is reducing the avoidable suffering of other species, let’s just minimize the suffering.

Many other people and organizations are opposed to granting personhood to animals, including Sloan Kettering in New York, which also filed an amicus brief against NhRP, citing the work of several 2020 Nobel laureates which led to a cure for Hepatitis C:

Critical to the laureates’ discovery was the use of chimpanzees—the same species that the Nonhuman Rights Project has sought to endow with habeas corpus rights ... Without the use of animals—and in this case, comparatively intelligent animals—the world might have been deprived of a discovery that promises to save innumerable lives.

A brief filed by veterinary groups contended that providing a writ of habeas corpus to Happy would “completely redefine the human-animal legal relationship” by undermining the status of ownership: “If animals do not receive the timely care they need, including during legal battles over their fate, they are the ones who will suffer. Ownership is the true pro-animal position.” 

And so the wrangling continued, but in the end, Steven Wise lost his case. In the New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright that I have been drawing on for this blog, the author quotes Justice Tuitt’s summary of her decision:

“This Court agrees that Happy is more than just a legal thing, or property. “She is an intelligent, autonomous being who should be treated with respect and dignity, and who may be entitled to liberty. Nonetheless, we are constrained by the caselaw to find that Happy is not a ‘person’ and is not being illegally imprisoned.” Tuitt stated that, in her view, the legislative process was better equipped to decide whether zoos should be allowed to keep elephants, but she noted that she found the arguments “extremely persuasive for transferring Happy from her solitary, lonely one-acre exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, to an elephant sanctuary on a 2300 acre lot.”

Wise is appealing the decision.

That, for now, is the end of this case, but it is not the end of this blog, for I have a personal coda to add, which represents a third position.  

In my (non-lawyer’s) view, it is beside the point to argue over whether Happy should be regarded as “a person.” The real question at issue, it seems to me, is whether Happy is a self-aware creature, just as we humans are. If she is, then she should be accorded the same rights as ourselves.  

And there is data to indicate that Happy is indeed a self-aware animal. It comes from “the mirror test.” The way it works is this: You paint a spot on an animal’s head and then put her in front of a mirror. Does she recognize the spot? If so, then she is aware of herself as a distinct being, just as we are when we look into the mirror, however bleary-eyed, in the morning.  

We know that children after they reach a certain age pass this test, and so do chimps and orangutans. But what about Happy? Here’s what they found when they tested her this way.

She moved in and out of view of the mirror a couple of times, until she moved away again. In the following 90 seconds, out of view of the mirror, she repeatedly touched the visible mark. She then returned to the mirror, and while standing directly in front of it, repeatedly touched and further investigated the visible mark with her trunk. Happy touched the white “X” twelve times, becoming the first elephant to pass the mirror self-recognition test.

Happy was definitely aware of herself. Given that, what right do we have to pen her up as if she were merely “a dumb beast?” Isn’t it obvious by now that Happy deserves to be granted the same rights as ourselves? Who cares if she is or is not legally “a person?” She knows that she exists as a distinct being and because she is capable of suffering, and has, for so many years, who could possibly object to her being freed at last to live safely in a sanctuary for a few years before she dies?

One last story, which will shock you, having to do with the cruelty that has been visited on other elephants.  

Did you know that elephants can be lynched? I came across one gruesome such case that Wright cites in his article. Here it is:

In 1916, following a circus performance in Tennessee, an elephant named Big Mary stepped out of line after spotting a watermelon rind. Her inexperienced handler, who was riding atop the animal, stabbed her with a bull hook. According to one account, the elephant hurled him to the ground, plunged her tusks into his body, trampled him, and then kicked his bloody corpse into the horrified crowd. A local magistrate ordered that Big Mary be hanged. A chain was placed around her neck, and she was slowly hoisted off the ground, as her feet pawed the air. The chain broke, and when Big Mary landed she shattered her pelvis. She lay there, moaning, until another chain was found and she was hanged successfully. The circus’s other elephants were made to observe the execution.

Well, yes, that was over a century ago, and it wouldn’t happen today. But there are still many instances of animal cruelty, as we know, because of our failure to grant animal rights. But, as you will learn in the next blog in this series, there is now a growing movement for what has been called “animal justice.” Despite the outcome in Happy’s case, that movement has already begun to attract powerful and influential voices, one of the most prominent of which you will be meeting next and learning about her forthcoming book, which is entitled Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility. Animal rights activists may have lost the case of Happy, but the battle for animal rights promises to be vigorous and holds out hope that at least some animals will not only have their day in court, but this time will emerge victorious.

April 21, 2022

Why Nietzsche Wept and Why We Don’t

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  

I haven’t been able to go to a zoo for many years. I just can’t stand to see animals penned up or in cages. Even when artificial environments or islands are created for them to give them a little more space to pad around, they are obviously still confined. However delighted children may be to see the animals in their storybooks alive and at close range, from the perspective of the animals themselves who are often bored or dozing in the sun (at least when the sun is shining), they are still inhabiting an open-air prison. Are human prisoners, when they are allowed to go out in their yards for an hour of exercise, any less free than when in their cells? Honestly, I don’t see how any adult visiting a zoo can feel anything but shame and revulsion. Of course, I realize that most adult visitors do not feel any such thing when they wander about gawking at encaged or otherwise imprisoned animals. It’s easy to banish any disquieting thoughts when you see monkeys frolicking about on the trees inside their cages, apparently having a good time. Why shouldn’t you enjoy watching their antics? 

But to me, this just shows a blatant if habitual failure of empathy. We view animals from our own privileged perspective as human beings free to move about as we like and, later, to leave them behind as we head for own homes. But what do the animals feel?

We can turn to literature, to fiction, to get some idea. For example, about ten years ago, by chance, I happened to pick up a book by an author, Benjamin Hale, of whom I had never heard. The book was called The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. It turned out to be the absolute best book I had read in recent years. It tells the story of an encaged chimpanzee named Bruno who is being used for various psychological experiments. At first, he is a brute, a mere beast, covered in his own shit. But one of the psychologist’s assistants takes an interest in Bruno, and believe it or not – remember this is fiction – teaches him to speak. Bruno eventually becomes quite literate. He becomes, if I can put this way, fully human. The assistant, a young woman, even takes him to live with her. (Eventually, he becomes an actor when, after escaping following the woman’s death, he hooks up with a Falstaffian Shakespearean actor.) 

I know this sounds fantastic, and it is of course, but we eventually learn that this book, which is being narrated by Bruno himself who speaks almost as if he is as erudite and articulate as Vladimir Nabokov, is being dictated to a woman named Gwen. At this point, Bruno has been placed in prison. His crime is not having escaped; it is because, in a rage, he has killed the psychologist who, at the beginning of the book, has tormented him with his cruel, self-serving experiments.

But what you learn from this book, which is also riotously funny, is to see the world through Bruno’s eyes, and it is – devastating. What we thoughtlessly do to animals with no regard to their welfare, to treat them as things, not conscious beings like ourselves, for our own ends, now strikes us with the force of a sickening and shocking revelation. 

I was so bowled over by this book, I did something afterward I had never done. I wrote the author a fan letter, and he actually responded with a cordial note of his own. Do yourself a favor, friends. If you have a taste for a Nabokovian fantasy, with a more than a touch of Kafka, drop everything and order a copy from Amazon. You will thank me. It may even change your life. 

Oddly enough, just recently I came across another book by one of my favorite authors, T. Coraghessan Boyle (I call him TCBY), called Talk to Me. It, too, tells the story of a chimp named Sam who becomes literate after he learns to sign. Sam, too, is exploited by an ambitious psychologist who wants to make a name for himself. And as with Bruno, Sam escapes, and after various adventures during which Sam is re-captured and encaged when he again is subjected to the tortured life of a cruelly confined animal (this time by a different psychologist), he is rescued by a woman who has loved him for the start. She is able to abduct him and they come to live together for some time. 

After a time, when Sam is still living with the woman, Aimee, who loves him, Aimee is visited by a priest who has heard about Sam and is curious to meet him. He is thunderstruck by what Sam is able communicate to him.

“That’s fascinating,” he said. “Amazing, really. To think that he can express himself, that he can talk – it changes everything, doesn’t it? The church teaches us that animals don’t have souls, or not immortal souls, in any case, but when you consider Sam … allowances have to be made, don’t you think?”

“Sam has a soul, [Aimee] said. “I’m sure of it.” 

The idyll will have to end badly, of course. What seems to be a farce will culminate in something like a Shakespearean tragedy.

The second psychologist discovers them and comes to take Sam back, but Sam is having none of it. He viciously attacks the psychologist, maims and blinds him, and then runs off. Again, the motive is revenge! As you can imagine, this does not end well for Sam. 

But again, this author has allowed us to see the world through Sam’s eyes. The way humans, especially the men in the book, treat (and mistreat) Sam is revealed as a horror show of heartless exploitation. Aimee’s love, alas, is not enough to save him. Aimee even has to kill him, mercifully with poison, before the authorities arrive to take Sam away, sparing him an even worse fate.

But we don’t have to rely on literature and fantasy to learn the lessons of the need for empathy for the creatures we so routinely and blithely incarcerate but who, unlike Bruno and Sam, must remain mute. They have voices, of course, but they cannot speak their anguish using human language.

Yet there was in fact one in real life who could. Perhaps you are not familiar with a certain inhabitant of the Bronx Zoo who spent some time there more than a century ago.  

His name was Ota Benga. He was a pygmy. If you had been alive in 1906 and living in New York, you could have seen him in a cage where he lived with an orangutan. A sign gave you this information about him:

The African pygmy, Ota Benga,
Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight 103 pounds. Brought from
Congo Free State, South Central Africa,
By Dr. Samuel P. Verner.
Exhibited each afternoon during September. 

The Times covered the exhibit’s opening, noting that Benga and the orangutan “both grin in the same way when pleased.” According to an article about Benga:

The Minneapolis Journal decreed, “He is about as near an approach to the missing link as any human species yet found.” [The zoo’s director, William Temple] Hornaday professed to be puzzled by the outrage, explaining that Benga had “one of the best rooms in the primate house.” But the zoo eventually released Benga to an orphan asylum.

Ten years later, Benga committed suicide, shooting himself in the heart. It turned out he was not 23 when he was encaged; he was only 13. So it was when he was actually 23 that he killed himself.

Encaged animals, not being allowed to carry guns, cannot usually find ways to commit suicide. They must live and suffer the indifferent gazes of passerbys or the delighted shrieks of children.

Of course, our unthinking cruelty to animals doesn’t just apply to those we capture from the wild and then imprison to suffer the immiseration of perpetual confinement. No, hardly. Obviously, there are many kinds of animals we humans confine or restrict in other ways or simply use and exploit for our own pleasure or convenience.

Take horses, for example. Certainly, many people who keep horses love and care for them and develop a personal connection to them. In such cases, there is a kind of reciprocity, even if it isn’t between perceived equals.

On the other hand … In recent years, as I have become more infirm and, in consequence, more sedentary, I have spent a lot of time watching television dramas adapted from famous nineteenth century English novels, often courtesy of the BBC. In many of these dramas, we see a team of horses chugging away, mile after mile in all sorts of weather, toting along a young girl on her way to becoming a governess for some well-to-do family. I’m sure you have seen many such programs. Our attention, naturally, is on the young girl, wondering what her future will be. 

But I often think about the horses, all trussed up and shackled to the carriage, who have no say in the matter. I wonder what they are feeling and what they are thinking. I don’t imagine them to be “dumb brutes,” simply submitting in an unconscious way to whatever demands their master may choose to enforce upon them, seemingly oblivious to the welfare of his horses. For him, they are simply there to do his bidding in blind submission to his will. But for me, I can’t help wondering what the horses themselves feel and if they ever, like quadruped slaves, yearn to break free.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the greatest philosopher of his age, was sensitive to the suffering of harnessed horses. You may know the famous story about this philosopher who, one morning early in the year 1889, while taking a walk on the streets of Turin, saw a man flogging his horse. Nietzsche, overcome, went to hug the horse, but broke down completely – and went mad. He was already veering toward madness, but it was seeing the beating of a horse that sent him over the edge into the abyss of lunacy from which he never recovered. He spent the last dozen years of his life lost to this one. The psychiatrist, Irvin Yalom, about whom I wrote in an earlier blog, based one of his best known novels on this incident, calling it When Nietzsche Wept

And then there are race horses. When I was young, I liked to go to race tracks to watch these magnificent animals. But no more. It hurts me to see the jockeys using the whips on their horses, urging them on. Horses clearly love to run and maybe some of them love to win the chase, but have you ever seen one pull up lame? And then we know what is likely to happen to that horse. He or she is done for and will have to be euthanized. Each year, between 2017 and 2019, over a thousand horses died in this way. “The sport of kings” is a blood sport for many horses who have to be sacrificed for our pleasure. We blot these scenes out of our mind and after seeing such a calamity, by the next day we have probably forgotten it. Horse racing continues. See you at the next Kentucky Derby.

I don’t think I have to continue this doleful parade of the way we treat many animals other than our pets. You can think of plenty of examples for yourself. Think of all the cattle we raise, for example, only to be slaughtered. What do they feel when they are being herded into the slaughterhouse? You think they have no idea what fate awaits them? Our relationship to many of the animals we raise for our pleasure can be defined by what I call “the three egregious e’s:” we eat them or exploit them or exterminate them. 

On this last point, we human beings have managed to exterminate or cause to go extinct virtually all large terrestrial megafauna. By the end of the century, the elephants and the rhinos will be all but extinct, and probably the lions and tigers, too. If there is still a survivable world, the children growing up then will do so without having direct knowledge of these animals. Maybe there will still be zoos where a token lion will pad around restlessly in a cage, but otherwise children will only know these animals from reading books, just as today, they have to read books about the bygone bison or passenger pigeon. For many animals, aside from our beloved pets, this world has been and continues to be nothing but an abattoir. 

Elizabeth Kolbert, a staff writer for The New Yorker who specializes in environmental issues, wrote a well-received but depressing book a few years back called The Sixth Extinction. Her wide-ranging research convinced her (and many others, including me) that we are currently witnessing the sixth major die-off in the evolutionary life of our planet. Most people know only one, when the dinosaurs were wiped out about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period. But we are, Kolbert avers, definitely in the midst of one now. And from what I’ve read, it is affecting our animal  kin more than us humans. According to recent reports, in the past several decades, human population has doubled whereas animal populations on average have declined almost a staggering seventy percent! Our animals are seemingly disappearing from our earth at an alarmingly accelerating rate.

One writer, whom we shall meet in a subsequent blog, has already sounded the tocsin: 

How are we to recalibrate our relationship with animals that live in complex societies and have a sense of themselves as individuals? The question becomes more urgent as the future of such species grows increasingly perilous. They are penned in, harassed and hunted, subjected to experiments, eaten, used in medicines … We think that, because we found ourselves on this globe, we have a right to use it for our own sustenance. Animals have the same claim. They, too, didn’t choose to be where they are.

It may of course be too late, just as it may be too late to arrest the onset of devastating climate change, but certainly one contributing factor to our present desperate plight has been the persistence of a seemingly ineradicable anthropocentrism that privileges human life above all others. But human beings are not on the top of some kind of imagined evolutionary ladder. Evolution more resembles a bush with many branches rather than a ladder with humans at its pinnacle.

Unfortunately, however, human beings are incontestably the alpha predator on the planet. We have no serious terrestrial predators (it’s only the viruses that can do us in). Some animals, such as bears and tigers, may maul us to death if they get close, but animals don’t have guns, much less missiles and bombs. We can and have killed animals at will and with impunity, often just for sport, and have done an excellent job of destroying their habitats as well. All this is well known. The question is, at this late hour, what can be done?

It occurs to me that in the nineteenth century, we virtually abolished slavery. In the twentieth century, the woman’s suffrage movement finally triumphed. In our own day, we have found our way to begin to protect the members of the LGBTQ community. All of these achievements have been possible because of the extension of legal rights to these populations. And because we need urgently to revision our relationship to our animal brethren, perhaps it’s time to consider in effect a bill of rights for animals.

Animal welfare efforts, while laudable, have failed. Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, whose 1975 groundbreaking book, Animal Liberation, seemed to promise a new day for animals, recently expressed disappointment that his movement, as important has it has been, did not achieve more. We need something more, something more radical, before the door of opportunity closes on our fingers.

Recently, a number of thinkers and animal rights activists have begun to wage a last ditch effort to achieve a meaningful way to establish a moral and legal framework for animals. My next two blogs will explore this new approach for animal justice and we will begin by returning to the Bronx Zoo.  

Here is a preview of who we will be meeting there:  

According to the civil-law code of the state of New York, a writ of habeas corpus may be obtained by any “person” who has been illegally detained. In Bronx County, most such claims arrive on behalf of prisoners on Rikers Island. Habeas petitions are not often heard in court, which was only one reason that the case before New York Supreme Court Justice Alison Y. TuittNonhuman Rights Project v. James Breheny, et al.— was extraordinary. The subject of the petition was Happy, an Asian elephant in the Bronx Zoo. American law treats all animals as “things”—the same category as rocks or roller skates. However, if the Justice granted the habeas petition to move Happy from the zoo to a sanctuary, in the eyes of the law she would be a person. She would have rights.