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Recognising The Rights Of Non-Human Animals

Recognising The Rights Of Non-Human Animals

Read about three victories – for the North Atlantic right whale, for chimpanzees, and for all nonhuman animals.

Author: Jennifer Scarlott

Dear Cub kids,

The North Atlantic right whale is one of earth’s most majestic creatures.  The whale’s Latin name, Eubalaena glacialis, means “whale of the ice.” They came to be called the “right” whale by whale hunters because unfortunately they had a number of characteristics that whalers liked: they are docile; they feed slowly and at the ocean’s surface; they tend to stay close to coastlines; and their high blubber content meant that their carcasses tended to float and provide high yields of whale oil.

Photo: NOAA/Wikimedia Commons.

The right whale is a “baleen” whale, Mysticeti. Unlike toothed whales, Odontoceti, baleen whales have a large set of plates in their mouth that filter food from water. Rather than catching prey individually, as toothed whales do, filter-feeders consume enormous amounts of prey at a time, seeking out concentrations of zooplankton and moving through the water open-mouthed, and then straining the minute organisms through their baleen.

Because right whales must spend so much of their time feeding at the surface, they are particularly vulnerable to fatal collisions with large ocean-going vessels. In recognition of this problem, a serious one for a species whose numbers are critically low, in 2008, the U.S. government put a temporary speed regulation in place. The rule required that vessels 65 feet or more in length must slow down in designated areas. Since the rule went into effect five years ago, there have been no right whale deaths within 40 miles of any of the speed restricted zones. Thanks to an enormous public outpouring of support on behalf of the whales, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service announced on December 6, 2013, that it has made the federal speed regulations permanent. This is a major step forward for the recovery of the right whale!

On to chimpanzees – there has been progress in the fight for the welfare of captive chimpanzees this year, but an animal rights group has taken the struggle for animal justice a step further. The group, called The Nonhuman Rights Project, has been working for years to develop a legal case for consideration of animals as “legal persons.” The group has filed a suit on behalf of a captive chimpanzee in New York, requesting that the animal be recognised by the State Supreme Court, not “as a legal thing to be possessed, but rather as a cognitively complex autonomous legal person with the fundamental legal right not to be imprisoned.” Steven M. Wise, the leader of the Project, hopes “to breach the legal wall that separates all humans from all non-human animals,” and he thinks that chimps are the best place to start. The suit is receiving a great deal of serious media attention in the United States.

And finally, victory # 3… did you know that, unlike Cub kids, there are STILL people who aren’t sure whether non-human animals are conscious, feel pain, and experience emotions? It is hard to believe, but it’s true. That is why it’s important that on July 7, 2012, a prominent group of scientists issued the “Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness” at Cambridge University in England. This was the very first public scientific proclamation stating that it is clear beyond doubt that non-human animals have the ability to feel, perceive, be conscious, and to experience themselves as… selves. Since there are still many people who do not believe this, it is important that these scientists have stated that countless non-human animals share abilities once universally believed possible only for humans.

Three victories for non-human animals, from three different human realms – government, law, and science. Although the case of the chimpanzee has only just entered the court, it is an important moment in the movement to recognise the rights of non-humans. When the day comes that we behave ethically toward every non-human species, that we finally fully take into our hearts and minds the realisation that there IS no divide between humans and non-humans, on that day we will reach our full potential as Homo sapiens.

Your friend,


First appeared in: Sanctuary Cub, January, 2014.


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