Is It Time to Grant Nonhuman Animals “Human Rights”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | August 23rd, 2013 | 5 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Humpback whale breach

Crows in American cities drop tough nuts onto heavily trafficked streets and then wait for cars to crush them open so that they can get the food inside. Prairie dogs use a sophisticated, complex language; and coyotes and badgers work together to catch prey. It seems as though every day we learn more and more about the high intelligence of nonhuman animals.

Of course, when it comes to mental agility, most of us would list primates, elephants and cetaceans (such as dolphins and whales) at the top of the list. If we are finally starting to recognize the intellect of nonhuman animals, is it time that we extend to them some of the rights that we humans enjoy?

“Nonhuman persons”


Ravens solve problems with logic — in some tests surpassing chimpanzees. ©Henry H. Holdsworth

In 2012 at the Francis Crick Memorial Conference in Cambridge, England, an international panel of neuroscientists declared that nonhuman animals have consciousness and that humans are not unique in recognizing themselves in mirrors or in making decisions. Because animals are sentient, the only reason humans are treated differently is speciesism, an arbitrary distinction based on the incorrect belief that humans are the only species deserving of moral consideration. Like racism and sexism, speciesism is wrong because animals such as chickens, cows and pigs suffer when confined, tortured and slaughtered. The panel concluded that there is no reason to morally distinguish between humans and nonhuman animals.

Some say the main reason that people have rights is to prevent unjust suffering. Similarly, animal rights activists want animals to have rights in order to prevent them from enduring deplorable treatment. While we do have legal statutes to prevent some animal suffering, our laws prohibit only the most egregious animal cruelty. Our laws do nothing to prevent most forms of animal exploitation, including fur farming and veal and foie gras production.

One person leading the fight to give nonhuman animals human rights — particularly in the case of dolphins — is Thomas White, the Conrad N. Hilton Chair of Business Ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. For White, who is also a member of The Wild Dolphin Project and a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, the scientific evidence is so strong for the intellectual and emotional sophistication of dolphins that there simply is no question that they are “nonhuman persons” who deserve respect as individuals. He believes that both the killing and captivity of dolphins are ethically indefensible.

There are many others who agree. In fact, the mission statement of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies reads:

“Owing to advances in several fields, including the neurosciences, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the human species no longer can ignore the rights of nonhuman persons. A number of nonhuman animals, including the great apes, cetaceans (i.e. dolphins and whales), elephants and parrots, exhibit characteristics and tendencies consistent with that of a person’s traits like self-awareness, intentionality, creativity, symbolic communication and many others. It is a moral and legal imperative that we now extend the protection of ‘human rights’ from our species to all beings with those characteristics.”

Everyone a vegan?

There are those, though, who question the viability — and logistics — of giving nonhuman animals human rights. The first hurdle, they say, would be deciding where to draw the line. Would only certain nonhuman animals, those deemed worthy by as-yet-undetermined criteria, be granted human privileges, or would rights extend to any creature classified as part of the animal kingdom?

Elephant face

After Homo sapiens, elephants have the greatest number of cortical neurons and synapses. ©Eric Rock

Too, if we stop breeding and keeping domesticated animals, a host of other complications would inevitably arise. Some species would be sure to survive, but others would certainly go extinct. If we let our pet cats and dogs go free, feral colonies would flourish (without spaying and neutering) to the detriment of many bird species. Established populations of feral pigs have already been described as a “national crisis.”

Animal rights activists say that change is difficult, but the ultimate goal of giving animals the right to live free of human use and exploitation is worth the cost of achievement. They hope ultimately for a vegan world where animals are no longer used for food, clothing or entertainment.

For us, it could prove to be a very smart move.

Do you think we should extend human rights to nonhuman animals? If so, what could be some of the first steps toward making the change?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: The convolutions on the neocortex area of the brain are more pronounced in cetaceans than they are in humans. ©Travis John Andrews


  1. Interesting perspective. Most of us who read this would, as a general course, protect every animal with which we come in contact, despite the existence of its/his/her legally defined right. But such a recognition could force those whose practices inflict harm to adjust the way they do business. It seems the only laws that do that now are those related to endangered or threatened species.

    Regardless, science can play a role in establishing the precedent that animals are “deserving of moral consideration.” We should not, however, legislate survival. This includes natural selection and the natural food chain, of which we are a part. Ugly is the truth that animals eat other animals, that the weak become prey, and that nature is a harsh environment, yet if we’re really seeking truth, then we must accept all of it.

    The first step is one you already make here: the spread of knowledge. Educate the public of the proven emotional and intellectual intelligence so that more people, like us, will make it a basic habit to protect the basic rights of every living being.

    Ruth Heil | August 27th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  2. Some of you may be old enough to remember Dr. Albert Schweitzer and his “reverence for life”. He opined that “human consciousness holds an awareness of, and sympathy for the will of other beings to live. Ethics themselves proceed from the need to respect the wish of other beings to exist as one does towards oneself”. (Tell that to the millions of babies aborted all over the world and all the animals destroyed by greed or just for fun.)
    I think that another logical question is not only where do we start, but where do we stop? If we indeed feel it ethical to protect all living beings, we will stop using antibiotics and antiviral agents, stop malaria prevention programs, stop all hunting and fishing, stop all medical research involving animals. How do we decide who is worthy of protection?

    Carlyn Kline | August 28th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  3. We must give non-human animals the same rights as humans. If we do, they will protect biodiversity on Earth better than we humans can. BUT, exactly HOW do we do this??

    vicki breazeale | August 31st, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  4. Yes, i think animals should have rights! It is up to humans to be their voice & protect them to the best of our ability.

    Jamie | September 9th, 2013 | Comment Permalink
  5. Our position may not be popular nor get us added to more Christmas card lists but nevertheless, we all agree that animals deserve to be treated humanly and should all be granted some of the same rights we humans expect.

    OMG Kids | September 18th, 2013 | Comment Permalink

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