One of the most useful myths to take hold around the world is that of rights. All of us living in what are referred to as democracies (but of course are only approximations of this ideal) are familiar with the concept of human rights. We take it for granted that we have a right to vote; a right to attend protest rallies; to assemble in groups, publicly or privately; to speak freely in public (provided we are not inciting hatred or slandering someone); to publicly criticise our political leaders; to practice the religion of our choice; to change or drop our religion without interference of any kind; to state our opposition to religion; to marry whoever we wish; to end our lives with dignity; to indulge in public satire and mockery; to own private property; to walk down the Mall skimpily clad; to receive state-funded education and medical care and to receive equal treatment under the law…and so on.

We tend to think of these as the naturally occurring rights of all people, but as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book, Sapiens: A history of humankind, no person, animal or thing has a ‘natural’ or ‘inherent’ entitlement to rights of any kind. Rights are just myths to which we willingly subscribe because they are so wonderfully effective in improving our lives.lvii Hardly surprising then that human rights are popular among people everywhere. But when it comes to animal rights, which one would think would be a natural extension of this idea, our behaviour is so contradictory it is difficult to say where we stand. On one hand, many countries have laws that recognise an animal’s right to be protected from ill-treatment, but on the other, these same countries allow certain industries to inflict terrible cruelty on a range of animal species in direct contravention of this right. The underlying principle seems to be: we will grant animals a limited range of rights just as long as in so doing we are not disadvantaging too many people. It is this line of thinking that has been utilised by special interest groups to create the widely accepted, but purely fictitious idea that if meat was not available, people would be disadvantaged. It is within this psychological space, which they have created, together with the economic arguments for their continued existence, that the rights of animals have been suspended and the animal-abuse industries permitted to survive. If an animal’s right to be protected from ill-treatment was accepted as being equal to that of a human, as it should be, the existence of today’s animal-abuse industries would be unthinkable and the arguments that allow them to exist today, absurd.

Here is an example of how the rights of an animal can be trampled upon when we insist on seeing everything through the prism of human benefit:

In the United States, in April 2014, a ruling was handed down by a New York appeals court denying a chimpanzee, named Tommy, freedom from the agonies of solitary confinement because he could not ‘bear any legal duties’, ‘submit to societal responsibilities’ or ‘be held legally accountable for his actions’. lviii The Nonhuman Rights Project had argued that Tommy should be considered a person in legal terms with the right not to be wrongfully imprisoned. But the judges in the case refused to order his removal to a sanctuary with other chimpanzees, and in doing so, denied him relief from his terrible predicament. His human owner was permitted to continue denying him the right to live with others of his own species because he wanted to keep Tommy for himself. lix

The court’s decision, in my view, missed the whole point of the action, namely, that it is wrong to inflict torment on sentient beings, let alone our closest relatives, and the primary responsibility of the court was to correct that wrong. What exactly has the bearing of legal duties got to do with it? Are we to interpret the law in this jurisdiction to mean that because a chimpanzee cannot vote or buy a house, it does not have the capacity to suffer, or the right to be protected from unnecessary cruelty?

As world-renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall, stated in her affidavit found here:

‘…there is ample proof that chimpanzees “have well-defined duties and responsibilities,” and that “common law personhood” should be afforded to them...’ lx

Why, in this modern era, do we still have rulings that at their heart are based on a primitive view from 200 years ago when animals were considered to be little different from machines, and the agonised howls of dogs being dissected without anaesthetic were judged to be the reactions of an insensate automaton? Nobody believes that animals are machines anymore, do they?

It is disheartening to think that an American court would allow itself to get tied in knots about the definition of a person when a real and urgent issue involving profound suffering in another species is brought before it. This is the type of outcome we must expect when human interests, or human procedural matters, are put ahead of animal welfare as a matter of course. But the tide may be turning elsewhere. In New Zealand, the Whanganui River; and in India, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers; were recently declared to be legal ‘persons’ to afford them environmental protection.lxi And it will be a while before any of them buys a house.