Animal Emancipation

chimpanzee hand grasping wire fence

Ask not what animals can do for you: could the next wave of emancipation be the recognition of non-human people?

We like to see good triumph over evil. We like to feel a little righteous. We’re less keen on the reversal – on being ‘wrong’. At empathy grade one, ‘am I being unreasonable?’ becomes ‘how would I feel if someone behaved this way toward me?’ Similarly, ‘how could those {insert people and historic period of choice} allow that {genocide/enslavement/oppression} to take place?’ becomes ‘when have I gone along with a crowd of idiots doing something immoral?’ Or, more radically: what attitudes or practices am I complicit in now that will be judged poorly by history? That’s unsettling.

Unfortunately it’s likely: arrogance survives despite successive, massive intellectual blows to “the dominionist, anthropocentric, speciesist, theocratic, and geocentric worldview of Western society.”[1] In a progressive world, what might follow the race, feminist, and sexual-orientation revolutions? Could our treatment of wild animals in the pursuit of food, entertainment, research and material resources “seem to our descendants as unspeakable as that of the slaves in the middle passage seem[s] to us”?[2]

Sentience, Sapience and Societies

The moral philosophy discussion around animal sentience—awareness of sensations and emotions—drives welfare considerations: animals should not be subjected to unnecessary suffering through human activity. ‘Unnecessary’ is difficult to delineate, though, and ‘suffering’ includes fear, hunger and other unpleasant sensations as well as pain. However, there are scientifically sound ways to show, behaviourally or physiologically, when animals are suffering.[3] Yet, during 2015, in the UK, “126,000 animals didn’t regain consciousness after experiments … [and] a further 185,000 experiments were classed as ‘severe’ in the level of suffering caused to the animals”.[4] Medical and cosmetic research is perpetuating a paradox: if animals are good models, then using them is as unethical as using humans; if animals are not good models, why not develop more effective, ethical ones? However, the challenge to our status quo is much greater.

Evidence is rapidly accumulating of more subtle similarities, nudging at our concept of sapience—the capacity for strategic thinking and judgement. “Attributes once considered uniquely human – including culture, mourning rituals, empathy, self-awareness, suffering, tool use, distinct personalities, ethics, complex linguistic abilities, and a sense of aesthetics – are now identified in myriad species,”[5] including dolphins, cats, elephants, mice, octopi, and invertebrates. Cetaceans exhibit all these attributes, plus epimeletic—altruistic care-giving—behaviour toward their pod mates.[6] Chimpanzees “routinely shoulder duties and responsibilities both in chimpanzee communities and in human/chimpanzee communities.”[7] Humpback whales even protect other species: “not only do humpbacks aggressively protect their own calves from killer whales [orcas], they also frequently rush to the aid of other distraught species like seals.”[8] Even if this behaviour boils down to long-term self-protection, human altruism is subject to the same reductionism.

“Now that the very same criteria underlying the values, ethics, morals, and laws that exempt humans from institutionalised abuse are recognised in other animals, we must find alternative means and ends in the quest for knowledge. … This implies a complete change in how medicine is practised, what we eat, how we behave, and even a reassessment of what is entailed in living on the planet.”[5]

On this evidence, common law is evolving toward recognising the rights of non-humans, with which we could then “argue successfully that a chimpanzee has a right to bodily integrity, so she can’t be the subject of biomedical research… [or] persuade a court that a dolphin has the right to bodily liberty, so she can’t be captured from the Gulf of Mexico and imprisoned in a tank to amuse our fellow citizens.”[9] Through political systems, our ethical and legal frameworks, and our personal attitudes and behaviour, inform and drive each other. The conversation is underway.

When we consider this evident sapience as well as sentience, attending to the physical and psychological welfare of individuals isn’t nearly enough. The social structures, culture and habitat of wild species also need to be respected – “beyond a basic ‘right to life, liberty and wellbeing’, [animals] also have the right to freedom of movement and residence within their natural environment; the protection of their natural environment; and not to be subjected to the disruption of their cultures.”[10] Intelligence is not a human preserve, and it takes many forms. It’s time to ditch our ironically unintelligent presumption that what is different must be inferior – the pervasive but outdated legacy of Descartesian philosophy.

Principles and Paradigms

Such a paradigm shift unravels several threads of our accepted cultural norm, including our well-intentioned and well-researched conservation principles. Why do these inevitably expire under the scrutiny of the retroscope, hubristically superseded by yet another decade’s fashion? Sometimes basic linguistics gives us away, as when wildlife communities are labelled ‘stocks’; sometimes the distortion is deeper.

“Many methods of conservation conventionally used to ‘manage’ wildlife, such as culls, sustainable harvests, captive breeding, translocations, and commercial animal trade, undermine the very goals conservation seeks to achieve. … In human populations, such practices would be called genocide, deportation, eugenics, prison camps, and slavery.”[5]

We now recognise post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in non-human individuals who have been exposed to any of these abhorrent practices.

Gradually, but fundamentally, we must shift our worldview: human survival and health includes the survival and health of our fellow planetary inhabitants. We must shift from valuing the natural world for its benefit to ourselves to valuing it for itself. Wildlife is not there for our use, and we don’t ‘own’ any natural entities, any more than we can own other people.

So let’s expand this notion to the complete emancipation of animals.

Recognising Rights

This emancipation starts with recognising – not granting – all animals’ rights. That means everything from hedgehogs to hawks, bonobos to bees, turtles to trout. Some rights are unique to a species; some overlap with other species. One common right among animals is not to be incarcerated, tortured, biomedically experimented on or otherwise have their freedom restricted by humans. Considering the current state of affairs, that’s tricky. Yet, in only a matter of time, the compelling cases for cetacean rights [11] and ape rights [12] will succeed. The advocacy enabled by embedding the rights of nature in a human legal framework is of course still limited by its anthropocentrism, but it’s a forward step.

We can’t undo millennia of maltreatment, but we’re not trying to remove ourselves from the equation. In recognising the rights of nature, we also reaffirm our part in it. Challenging our basic beliefs is uncomfortable but engendering respect for our fellow beings is simply right. Public perception and politics will evolve from viewing other living creatures as economic resources or property to seeing them as people.[13] Hundreds of millions of indigenous people and buddhists already see the world this way. How can we truly love wildlife without recognising its equality?

Will civilisation collapse? Like previous waves of emancipation, there will be conflicts, but we’re smart and adaptable.

What’s next? Plants? Rocks? In 2012 the Whanganui river in New Zealand was recognised as a legal person with rights and moral standing.[14] It’s only a matter of time.

This article is also published at Lifelogy.


1., Steven Best, “Minding the Animals: Ethology and the Obsolescence of Left Humanism”, Canadians for Emergency Action on Climate Change, 28/07/2011
2., Adam Gopnik, “A Point of View: Will future generations condemn us?”, BBC News Magazine, 26/02/2016
3., Compassion in World Farming, “Stop – Look – Listen: Recognising the Sentience of Farm Animals: Summary”, Compassion in World Farming, 2006 retrieved 28/07/2016
4., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, “4.14 Million Experiments on Animals Were Carried Out in Britain Last Year. Why?”, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 20/07/2016.
5. G. A. Bradshaw, “Transformation Through Service: Trans-species Psychology and its Implications for Ecotherapy” in Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind, eds Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist (Counterpoint, 2009), 159-164.
6., Whale and Dolphin Conservation, “Rights for Whales and Dolphins”, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, retrieved 28/07/2016
7., Nonhuman Rights Project, “Q&A about the Nonhuman Rights Project”, Nonhuman Rights Project, retrieved 28/07/2016
8., Shreya Dasgupta, “Humpback whales rescue seals and other animals from killer whales”, Mongabay, 05/08/2016
9., Nonhuman Rights Project, “The Capacity to Have a Legal Right”, Nonhuman Rights Project, retrieved 28/07/2016
10., Whale and Dolphin Conservation, “Sentient and Sapient Whales and Dolphins”, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, retrieved 28/07/2016
11., EarthViews Productions, “By All Rights”, Vimeo, 27/01/2016
12., Nonhuman Rights Project, “Q&A about the Nonhuman Rights Project”, Nonhuman Rights Project, retrieved 28/07/2016
13., Whale and Dolphin Conservation, “From Commodity to Co-habiter”, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, retrieved 28/07/2016
14., Global Alliance, “Whanganui river given rights as a legal identity”, Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature, 08/09/2012

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Writer, researcher and biophile in Kinross-shire, Scotland, reconnecting with nature through studying and practising ecopsychology –

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