What rights should non-human animals have?

I recently watched the documentary ‘Unlocking the cage’, a film focusing on the ‘Non-human rights project’ and their quest to promote legal rights for, at least some, non-human animals. The organisation, led by Steven Wise and his team, are shown constructing a calculated campaign to utilise the ambiguity of certain terms used in law to present their legal case. Namely that a number of specific chimps are being held in conditions which are unfit detention, and which they argue is allowed only because nobody has brought forward a case against the practice before on their behalf.

Steven Wise

‘It’s a hell of a war, there’s going to be a lot of battles in the war, but it’s time to begin’ Steven Wise

Using the findings from more recent cognitive and behavioural research with non-human animals (such as chimps, elephants and dolphins), which suggest a far higher level of cognition and consciousness than previously thought, they target a small number of chimps who are known to be kept in confined conditions, and build their case based on the ‘habeas corpus law’.


In short they are attempting that as animals appear far more conscious and intelligent than previous thought they deserve legal rights to protect them from detention in unfit living conditions. On an ethical level this seems entirely fair to me and hard to argue with. Even though the research can only tell us so much, and some of the claims may be a bit premature, it is hard to ignore that historically non-human animals have been underrated. While the nature of this new research expands our understanding of non-human animals it also challenges our previously held ethical opinions about their treatment. This makes the case for their legal rights stronger, and makes such conditions for animals far more unacceptable. But should that dictate actual legal rights?

But they aren’t humans

For those against the idea, animals are not human, and therefore should not be subject to the same ‘rights’. But as the documentary illustrates ‘rights’ are not solely given to humans. Lakes and Rivers have been afforded rights to, as have metaphorical religious entities.

New Zealand Grants a River the Rights of Personhood

But even so, non-human animals are far closer to humans than these things. And these things are only afforded ‘rights’ in rare cases. Therefore, while the precedent gives hope to the cause, it still requires an extra leap of faith to see non-human animals as distinct and important enough to be given the more comprehensive rights afforded humans.

What have non-human animals ever done for us?

In court one of the judges in the documentary focused on that fact non-human animals couldn’t contribute back to society or be responsible for their actions (eg they could not be held responsible to follow laws which were not applicable to them). For the judge a developing human is protected by the rights of the law, but as they grow and develop they are also subject to those laws. We of course cannot expect this of non-human animals. As they are not humans we cannot apply human standards to their behaviours. But this does not mean we cannot treat them fairly. And it also doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have some form of rights (at least to protect them from humans)!


Things are made harder due to the communication issues. Our different languages make it hard for humans and non-human animals to always relate. In addition, our different goals make our interactions often at odds with one another. But despite this it is still possible to connect on a more primal sensory level with non-human animals if we choose to through perception, interaction and exploration. Anybody who works with animals or has pets will no doubt testify to that. And history has shown that our use of non-human animals for our own ends is because we have observed strengths and skills which we can utilise. So at least on some level a connection cognitively and emotionally between human and non-human animals is accepted doctrine.

All animals are not born equal

However, for many this connection is not sufficient grounds to warrant the next step to equality. Such a view is deeply buried into the collective consciousness of humanity, no doubt rooted from our evolutionary development into the dominant species. It is not hard to understand how humans would have developed a superiority complex.

The Human Pedigree

The way we have reconstructed the earth’s environment is testament to our inherent belief in our own desires at the expense of those belonging to the many other unique living creatures who share the planet with us. We feel special. We are special. But non-human animals are special too. And scientific research is continuing to demonstrate just how special (Refs). So in effect our specialness (science) is helping to unlock the specialness of non-human animals and let it enter our awareness.

The infamous Kanzi whose cognitive abilities are pretty impressive

As the globalised world becomes smaller, and boundaries become fuzzier, so to do ethical boundaries. The more we acknowledge and assimilate the scientific work with non-human animals, the more the case for their rights seems only to strengthen.

The times they are a changin…

As far as I can see though this is how society moves forward, as new evidence comes to light we change in response (or at least we do sometimes). The number of vegetarians and vegans is increasing, and more people are addressing the contradiction (known as ‘the meat paradox’) between loving animals, having them as pets and treating them as family, while at the same time eating them, and cognitively dissociating the hunk of warm steaming ‘meat’ on the dinner plate from the reality of what it is, cooked flesh from another living being (whose cognition is not as far away from your own as once thought).

Meat – Humans favourite food

The case for non-human animals to be granted rights seems to be strengthening. And I for one do not think the questions surrounding the limits, extents and ramifications of applying these rights should be used as a reason to maintain the status quo. Rights for non-human animals may dictate a long and uncertain road ahead for the future of legal policy and societal reform, but I for one feel it is a road worth travelling.


Griffin, D. R., & Speck, G. B. (2004). New evidence of animal consciousness. Animal cognition, 7(1), 5-18. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10071-003-0203-x

Hampton, R. R. (2009). Multiple demonstrations of metacognition in nonhumans: Converging evidence or multiple mechanisms?. Comparative cognition & behavior reviews, 4, 17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748335/

Roitblat, H. L., Terrace, H. S., & Bever, T. G. (2014). Animal cognition. Psychology Press.

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