We do not have to look far in our immediate environments to find an example of an animal who is being confined, suppressed, or treated as a commodity. Despite a constantly increasing awareness of animal rights, they are still regarded as "lesser beings" when compared to the human race.
Humans have dominated and controlled the lives of animals for thousands of years, differentiating them from the rest of the predators on the planet. "Dumb Animals" is a well-known and well-used phrase, testament to a long-held human belief that their inability to communicate with us and speak our languages somehow renders other creatures as less important. This alone is the justification for intensive farming and animal experimentation in the name of science, yet the truth is more likely to be that animals understand us only too well. Rather, it is we humans who cannot understand animals, yet our opposable thumbs and ability to entrap and oppress other species has led to centuries of animal abuse.
So how can animals begin to claw back their "animal rights?"
A recent ground-breaking court case that allowed animals to be considered as plaintiffs took place in one of the most recent was brought about when Stephen Wise, a 63-year-old legal scholar in the field of animal law, represented Tommy, a chimp who had been incarcerated since birth in a dungeon-like cage.He was supported by fellow lawyers, Natalie Prosin, the executive director of the Nonhuman Rights Project (Nh.R.P.), and Elizabeth Stein, a New York-based animal-law expert,who took the case to the clerk’s office of the Fulton County Courthouse in Johnstown, N.Y..
Such a document had never before been presented in any court on the planet, so it was a shock to the very traditional Fulton County judicial system.
It was entitled “The Nonhuman Rights Project Inc. on behalf of Tommy,” and described the "petitioner’s" claims of unreasonable incarceration in “in a small, dank, cement cage in a cavernous dark shed.” The claims were substantiated by nine affidavits collated from the world’s leading primatologists who had confirmed that, as a sentient being, Tommy would have experienced severe physical and psychological distress due to the enforced confinement.
With Tommy’s case setting the precedent, the Nh.R.P. now intends to file similar lawsuits on behalf of other animals known to have a high level of cognitive awareness, including other primates such as bonobos, orangutans and gorillas, along with dolphins, orcas, belugas, elephants and African gray parrots. Chimps were an obvious choice as trailblazers due to the fact that their highly-developed cognitive skills had been well-researched and documented for decades.
“Like humans,” the legal memo reads, “chimpanzees have a concept of their personal past and future . . . they suffer the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs or move around as they wish; [and] they suffer the pain of anticipating never-ending confinement.”
There are also a plentiful number of sanctuaries where successful primate plaintiffs could be rehabilitated, whereas it would be much more difficult to re-home dolphins or elephants.
Arguing the case for animals is always contentious and difficult to prove; even the human element of this case found it difficult to provide enough evidence for the judge to take the action seriously and, after several days of deliberation, the judge threw out their part of the suit on the basis of standing as well.
The concept that animals have rights is one that many are still reluctant to embrace, due to centuries of conditioning that dictates that only members of the human race are worthy of justice and consideration.
In one notorious case that occurred in September 1916, Mary the Elephant killed by one of her circus trainers, and was sentenced to be hanged by the circus owner. In another , a zoo elephant, Ziggy, escaped with his life but was "sentenced" to be chained to the wall of an indoor enclosure for 30 years for injuring his keeper. It is doubtful whether the intense suffering and frustration that must have driven these hapless creatures to commit such brutal acts was ever put forward by their legal representatives or considered by the jury; these historic cases now illustrate a ridiculous naiveté with a viciously cruel outcome.
Modern day courts still routinely order the destruction of dogs and other animals that have committed dangerous attacks; though their owners are also penalized it still seems wrong for the animals to be put to death for, in some cases, the dogs have been programmed to be vicious by insensitive and ignorant human influences. On a more positive note, awareness of animal cruelty is gradually rising and many negligent owners are prosecuted, if not by their pets, then by their government which is a promising development, but the rights and fate of the animals are still very much out of their control.
Hopefully the misery suffered by the unfortunate chimp will not prove to have been totally in vain, as Tommy’s case is set to make legal history as the first nonhuman primate to ever sue a human captor in an attempt to gain his own freedom. Wise wants to continue to bring radical court cases on behalf of wronged creatures in the hope of changing what he sees as a flawed judicial system, one that appears to have had no problem prosecuting animals for their perceived misdemeanors yet has historically refused to grant them plaintiff status.
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