Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals

by Steven M. Wise

Published by Perseus Books

362 pages, 2000


Buy it online





Humane Rights

Reviewed by Brady R. Johnson


If a four-year-old demonstrates a vocabulary of several hundred words, plays, seeks affection and shows joy, sadness, anger and pleasure, is it moral to give that child a lethal injection and throw the corpse in the trash? Is it moral to deliberately inject the child with HIV virus? How would we regard someone found testing new chemical compounds on this unhappy four-year-old, clinically and coldly noting the lesions, sores and other effects of the experiments? Would we treat that person as a latter-day Josef Mengele?

What if a scientist were conducting those same experiments on a comatose patient? There are many patients who have suffered irreversible brain damage, who are demonstrably unaware of their surroundings and who will never regain consciousness although their bodies are intact and kept healthy. Is it moral to inject them with virus strains or to test new chemicals on their skin to gauge their physical reactions?

Think about it for a moment. Keep thinking. Wouldn't it benefit society if we could conduct medical experiments on humans? No? What about experimenting on unpopular human beings like criminals, or unconscious people who would never know what was happening to them? Still "no"?

Fair enough. Now: Would your answer change if the victims of these experiments were chimpanzees? And if so, why?

Law professor Steven Wise asks these and other equally disturbing questions in the courses he teaches at Harvard and other law schools and at the masters program in Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University. In Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals, Wise explores why we apply basic rights to our fellow humans, no matter what they have done or what condition they are in, but will not apply the same rights to a healthy and inoffensive chimp fluent in American Sign Language.

Wise points to a growing body of research showing that chimps, bonobos and other higher primates demonstrate the same mental abilities and sapience that humans display at a young age, including language, emotion and social interaction. He asks why we as a society treat these animals one way and humans quite another.

Wise's questions challenge our fundamental assumptions about the order of things. By asking them at all, he rattles the very foundation of our thinking about our place in the universe.

Wise takes us back more than 4,000 years to explore the origins of our "us and them" view of animals that regards them as soulless creatures provided by a beneficent deity solely for our use and pleasure. He leads us down the road from ancient Sumeria, through ancient Israel, Greece, Rome and medieval Europe, in clearly written, sometimes disturbing detail. He recounts how women and slaves were viewed as property in some cultures, sometimes bought and sold, sometimes considered to be without soul or reason. He reminds us that this view prevailed as recently as 1832, when the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court opined in the infamous Dred Scott case that blacks were "so far inferior, that they had no rights that the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit."

In the end, of course, the entrenched white males recognized both black slaves and women as their equals in the eyes of the law. But in the face of a growing body of evidence documenting the abilities of higher animals, most of us unquestioningly cling to the belief that animals are nothing more than our disposable property.

Rattling the Cage describes in matter-of-fact detail the experiments with the great apes that show that they, like humans, think and feel. That they learn language and initiate conversations and are capable of abstract thinking, just as we are. Certainly an ape is unlikely to become a rocket scientist, but a victim of Down's Syndrome is equally unlikely to excel in intellectual pursuits. Wise asks why, if the ape and a developmentally disabled human are similar in ability, thought and feeling, one should be accorded basic rights while the other is treated as property?

Wise is no animal rights fanatic. He does not demand that hamsters be given the vote, or that people who swat flies be tried for murder. But Wise does ask us to consider where we, as a society, should draw the line in recognizing legal rights. If rights come from our ability to think and reason, and we now know that other animals such as chimpanzees can do the same, why do we not recognize the same rights for them?

Unlike many who write about the history of law, Wise does not resort to arcane legal arguments and jargon to impress or intimidate. Instead, he speaks plain English and uses common sense as he presents his case carefully and methodically. Instead of cluttering up the pages with footnotes, the citations he provides to keep his fellow academics happy appear as endnotes at the back of the book.

As a spokesman for the animals, Wise does indeed rattle the cage in which our society has placed itself, imprisoned by our own ancient assumptions about the nature of animals and our relationship to them. He challenges us to rattle those bars from the inside, question the assumptions and perhaps break free from the cage. | May 2000


Brady R. Johnson is a Seattle criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He writes frequently about cyberlaw issues for the online newsletter TidBITS.