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Do Animals Have Any Rights at All?

Aired May 29, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: In California, a $20,000 emotional distress judgment over a Rottweiler. In New York, a custody battle over a cat named Lovey. In Massachusetts, a wrongful death suit over donut- eating sheep.

Tonight, is our legal system going to the dogs?


On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Mary Matalin.

In the CROSSFIRE, in Watertown, Massachusetts, Harvard Law School lecturer Steven Wise, author of "Rattling the Cage"; and in Atlanta, radio talk show host Neal Boortz.

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Whatever you do, don't forget to change the kitty litter this evening. If not, you could be sued by your cat! Just kidding. That won't happen yet, but some people fear it could be where we are heading with the explosion of support for animal rights. Twelve law schools, including Harvard and Georgetown now offer courses in animal law.

Tennessee has OK'd emotional distress damages for the loss of a pet. In California, a woman won $20,000 in damages when her Rottweiler's teeth and nails were mangled by a veterinarian. And in Aliso Viejo, California, one attorney has appointed himself legal guardian for a flock of ducks the city wants to remove from a public lake. No kidding!

Granted, we should not be cruel to animals, but are we going overboard in treating them like people. What rights do animals have, or do animals -- can animals have any rights at all? -- dog lover, Mary Matalin.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Dog lover and have many of them, they are my baby starter kit.

Mr. Wise, let's start right in with those -- with what appears to be the biggest concern about this new area of law animal advocacy and that is the moral -- the element of moral equivalency.

This is a quote from the University of Chicago Law School, Professor Richard Epstein, quote: "By treating animals as our moral equals, we would undermine the liberty and dignity of human beings, making the slaughters of Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot seem no worse than the daily activity of preparing cattle for a market."

Let's start with that moral equivalency. Let's presume that your argument which is founded on cognitive capacity gives a moral equivalency. But even if there is a cognitive capacity, does that mean there is moral cognition, do animals know the difference between right and wrong, do they know how to exert responsibility in return for their rights?

STEVEN WISE, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL LECTURER: Non-human animals probably don't have a sense of morality. But of course, neither do thousands or millions and millions of human beings, but they still have rights. I have two and a half-year-old twins, they don't have any moral responsibility, but they certainly have rights, just as do human psychotic people or retarded people, millions of other sorts of people who just don't have what it takes cognitively to be able to shoulder duties or responsibilities. But we still give them rights for other reasons.

MATALIN: Well, let me -- another concern people have -- and clear this up for me, maybe I misread your pre-interview, were you likening the extension of rights to animals as analogous to the extension of rights to African-Americans, you are calling animal advocacy the equivalent of civil rights?

WISE: Animal advocacy -- it depends what you mean by "animal advocacy." Animal rights is a very broad term, because there is a million species of animals and there is an infinite number of rights. There are, I argue, at least some non-human animals who are entitled to at least some basic rights, such as bodily integrity -- bodily liberty, right now, because they do have the cognitive abilities to justify giving them rights the way some human beings who don't quite have what it takes cognitively that a human adult have would have -- would also be eligible for fundamental rights.

MATALIN: Can I ask you this, and maybe it's not your thing, but here is what I think is the fundamental problem. And tell me what you think of a culture that gives no rights to unborn children, that permits partial birth abortion, let's presume this fetus has no cognitive ability. But it certainly would seem that it would have more rights on our hierarchy than an animal.

We give no rights to that unborn child, but we give -- we reward a Rottweiler with $20,000 for giving a mangled toenail job. Isn't that -- our culture gone awry here a little bit?

WISE: No, because both of those characterizations are wrong. The Rottweiler didn't get any rights because the Rottweiler is a thing the way table I'm sitting at or the chair I'm sitting in is a thing. Also, the human unborn or fetuses have very many rights. Under the common law they have a lot of rights. If you run down a pregnant woman and you cause an injury to her fetus or you even kill her fetus you will find that you'll be sued by that fetus for the fetus's estate. The problem from your point of view is that they don't have constitutional rights that can override the constitutional rights of a mother under Roe v. Wade, so that constitutional right of mother trumps the common law rights of the fetus. But, that aside, the common law -- the fetus has an enormous number of rights, while non- human animals have none at all.

PRESS: Let's say hello to Neal Boortz here in Atlanta, Neal, thanks for joining us this evening.


PRESS: You and I I'm sure admit, both of us being radio talk show hosts, that there are a lot of wackos out there among the animal rights people.

BOORTZ: One or two.

PRESS: I'm not one of them, I don't think you are either.

But I want to go back from rights to a second, to the basic thing that Professor Wise just alluded to which is property. You know, under current law, an animal, that little dog that you have, right, has no more rights, they are considered property. That is what they are under current law, no more rights than the chair that you are sitting on.

Don't you think that, that dog is worth more than the chair you are sitting on?

BOORTZ: Well, the dog does not have rights per se, but the dog does have protections that this chair I'm sitting on -- I can take this chair out in the middle of Peachtree Street here in Atlanta and I can break it up with a sledgehammer and if it's my chair, nothing happens.

PRESS: Exactly.

BOORTZ: Try that with the dog and I can be punished. So there are protections for animals, and that is fine. But the concept of giving them rights -- and I have read over the weekend some of Mr. Wise's writings -- the ideas of rights to life, liberty, and property for these animals, no. Laws dictating that we do not mistreat them or treat them cruelly, no rational person is going to have a problem with that. But putting them on the same legal standing as a human being, that is insanity.

PRESS: All right, well, let's talk about for example two cases that have come up in the news recently, and I agree with what you just said. Number one, this Rottweiler, right, it wasn't a Rottweiler that didn't get $20,000, the woman did because she took her dog to the vet to be cared for and instead the vet sent it back with mangled nails and with broken teeth.

Or about the woman down in San Jose that the guy in a little accident went up, grabbed her dog out of her lap, threw into it six lanes of traffic. We know what happened to the dog. I mean, in those cases clearly you've got no problem with -- they didn't find guy responsible in San Jose -- but with the other guy being punished, correct?

BOORTZ: Well, exactly, let's -- this woman had a contract of sorts with that veterinarian. He was going to receive a certain amount of money from her in order to perform a service for -- he was cutting the dog's nails for her, not for the dog. He failed to do his job the proper way and she had a legal action against him essentially for breach of contract.

PRESS: Well, then let's go the next step now, because you and I agree so far. Let's get into the area of rights.

BOORTZ: That is dangerous, isn't it?

PRESS: I know it is, but I just want to show you that this guy may not be so far out there as you think.


PRESS: I mean, if you agree so far, let's get into the area of rights.

Now, Neal, I wouldn't argue that all animals ought to have the same rights as humans, or even that all animals would have the same rights, but couldn't you, at least, distinguish between the rights you might give to a chicken for example, and a chimpanzee, because the chimpanzee does have a higher cognitive capacity?

BOORTZ: Well, unless they taste like chickens, but, yes, OK, I can go along with that. But you know, human beings -- at least we have laws that mandate the ethical treatment of animals. Animals don't have any laws that mandate the ethical treatment of human beings.

Human beings set up their own system of legal jurisprudence. If animals want to do that on their own, that is just fine. You know, go for it Bonzo. But try to enforce your legal system on human beings and that is not going to work out too well.

PRESS: How about attorneys who represent those animals that can't represent themselves? Why not?

BOORTZ: Well, that is just proof that there are too many attorneys.

MATALIN: OK, Mr. Wise, Bill brings up a point that I -- gee, big surprise -- disagree with. He puts an animal love hierarchy, chimpanzees above chickens. I just left my chickens this morning, I love my chickens, they have little pees pees. I love my rooster, even though he flailed me.

This brings up another point when you're trying to develop law here, and I once again quote Professor Epstein: "Where would it stop? Would we then proffer rights to whales and dolphins? Rats and mice? Would even bacteria have rights?"

Do you -- how do make that distinction? You are -- my chicken is as important to me as your chimpanzee.

WISE: I don't know where you draw the line. I just know that where the line is drawn now is wrong. It's arbitrary. It arbitrarily favors human beings because human beings drew those lines.

Chimpanzees and bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are extraordinary creatures with remarkable intelligences. And to arbitrarily and permanently deprive them of any legal rights simply because they are not human beings is arbitrary. It's unfair and it wreaks of bias.

MATALIN: But it also produces...

PRESS: Go ahead, Neal.

BOORTZ: Let me ask you a question. OK, you're working in the lab, something turns up missing in the lab. You suspect the chimpanzee. Do you have to go out and get a search warrant to go through the chimpanzee's cage to see if a missing vial of some highly infectious virus has been run off with, with the chimpanzee?

This is getting just a little bit absurd here.

WISE: The -- the reason it's beginning to get absurd is that you're raising absurd hypotheses. The answer is of course you don't have to get a search warrant.

Chimpanzees can have a legal right not to have you attack the chimpanzee or do biomedical research on the chimpanzee, but that doesn't mean that a chimpanzee is a person for purposes of the criminal law or you have to get a search warrant.

BOORTZ: But you're the one that wrote the same protections as human beings for life, liberty and property. As some people say, one of the best ways to illustrate absurdity is by being absurd.

WISE: I don't think I wrote that. What I think I wrote was that chimpanzees and bonobos are entitled to the basic rights, to bodily liberty and the basic right to bodily integrity, which means you can't eat them, you can't do biomedical research on them, you can't put them in steel and concrete -- steel...

BOORTZ: Then why do you...

WISE: ... and concrete cages. You have to treat them in some sort of a -- of a dignified way.

BOORTZ: Why do you pick out those two? Is it because they have 98 percent of the DNA that human beings do? And then, what animals do we include when we go to 97 percent? And what animals when we go to 95 percent? Where does it stop?

WISE: I can tell you why I picked those two. In fact, you can know why, too. You're in Georgia. If you go to the language research center at Georgia State University and stand there for three hours, and watch the bonobos and chimpanzees that are working the in language research center -- Sue Savage-Rumbaugh's lab at Georgia State University -- you will learn a lot. You will see that chimpanzees and bonobos are extraordinary creatures. They are -- they have the cognitive skills of our -- our human 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, perhaps even human 5-year-olds. They're remarkable creatures.

MATALIN: Perhaps even capacities as extraordinary as Bill Press'. We'll come back...

PRESS: Wait a minute.

MATALIN: ... and talk more animal rights...

PRESS: They're a lot smarter than your chickens are.

OK, we're going to have to take a break. When we come back, if cats and dogs have rights, does that mean we also have to celebrate their birthdays?


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Americans love animals. We flock to zoos and have more than 136 million dogs and cats in our own homes. They sleep in our beds and we celebrate their birthdays. But our love of animals has spawned advocates for animals. Animal activists are taking their cause to the courts, and those cases are creating a whole new and quickly growing legal specialty, animal law.

Should animals have legal rights? What does this say for our courts, not to mention culture?

We're looking into the animal kingdom with Harvard law lecturer Steven Wise, a leader in the field of animal advocacy, and award- winning radio talk show host and animal lover Neal Boortz -- Bill.

PRESS: Neal, I have to say that having had a wonderful cat named Eloise and a couple of dogs -- one named Abelard and one named Wolf -- we are currently without a pet, and I didn't realize how weird that is until I noticed today in our research today in this country there are 61,542,900 dogs as pets, 74,894,580 cats. Some people consider their pets, you know, more like family members, Neal. Is it any wonder there's this explosion in animal rites?

BOORTZ: Well, that's depressing that cats outnumber dogs, first of all. I...


No, I like what Ambrose Bierce had to say about cats, and that's that they were put on this Earth simply to give man something to kick when things aren't going well. But...

PRESS: Ooh. BOORTZ: Well, listen, Ambrose Bierce, not me. I used to have one.


BOORTZ: The dog terrorized it, and it ran -- it ran way.

PRESS: All right. Well, we'll forget cats then and just stick to the dogs here for just a second. I just want to test you out, Neal.

In terms of how people treat their pets -- same source, OK? -- looking at statistics, 28,539,216 dog owners giving their dogs Christmas presents. That's 65 percent of dog owners give their dogs Christmas presents. Do you, and aren't you ashamed if you don't?

BOORTZ: That's my dog, which is Bear. He gets a new teddy bear every Christmas, Bill. And...

PRESS: See, you are weirder than you thought you were.

BOORTZ: Well, no. People with dogs live longer. Now, I don't know which side I'm supposed to argue here. But people with dogs live longer. Dogs do marvelous things in visitation situations with nursing homes and people who are ill. But they are dogs. They are not human beings. They don't have humanlike intelligence, even the humanlike intelligence of a 5-year-old. The humanlike intelligence of a liberal maybe...


... but of a 5-year old, no.

PRESS: We'll let that pass, but we're inching closer to rights now. Now, you talked about their nonhuman-beings, but let's look a little further. When it comes to the dog's birthday, I must admit here, I never celebrated, I never even knew what my dog's birthday was. However, 2 million American dog owners give their dog a special meal on the birthday; 1.1 million give them ice cream, 700,000 people sing "Happy Birthday" to their dogs.

Why not if they don't think they're people?

BOORTZ: Well, isn't it nice that they love something? You know, they don't think they're people. These dogs lavish affection, or what passes for affection, on these people, and they are returning it.

I hope, Bill, that we're not using this an argument for setting up a whole system of legal jurisprudence for these things.

PRESS: I'm just suggesting we're inching toward it, Neal.

BOORTZ: Well, I have a question, for Mr. Wise. I mean, if chimpanzees are given "personhood," whatever that is, OK? What if one of them assaults me? Now monkeys have a very, very unique way of assaulting human beings. They place something unmentionable in their hand, and they throw it at you. Can I then go to the nearest court, since they have legal rights, and swear out an arrest warrant for this defecation-tossing chimpanzee?

WISE: The answer is no and it should be no. If you remember, in February, a 6-year-old boy got hold of a pistol and shot to death a 6- year-old girl in his first-grade class in Michigan. You may also remember that that boy was not charged under the criminal law with anything, nor was he sued, nor should he have been charged..

BOORTZ: No criminal...

WISE: Nor should he have been.

BOORTZ: Not old enough to form criminal intent.

WISE: No. of course he's not. And neither is chimpanzee. A chimpanzee, like a 6-year-old child, should be the subject of rights. You shouldn't be able to eat either of them or imprison either of them as punishment or use them in ways that is going to harm them. But just because they have these kinds of fundamental rights doesn't mean that they should be subject to any kind of criminal civil liability.

BOORTZ: But, Mr. Wise, you didn't answer my question earlier. Where, once you move from homo sapiens into the animal kingdom -- right now you're at chimpanzees and bonobos -- where is this line going to be drawn? Do you have an exterminator come by your house on a regular basis?

WISE: that is a very good question, and the answer is no one can know right now. However, what you do is you erase the line that is -- has been artificially drawn between human beings and non-human beings, and you begin to follow the science. You bring in scientists...

BOORTZ: That's not an artificial line.

WISE: It is an artificial line.

BOORTZ: Certainly it isn't.

MATALIN: OK, let's move on because we're talking about...

WISE: Well, it's...

MATALIN: Excuse me, gentlemen.

WISE: I'm sorry.

MATALIN: We're talking about the slippery slope of law and the things that could happen, but let's talk about what would happen now, Mr. Wise, under your animal advocacy. It would reduce, if not stop completely, animal testing. There are -- those kinds of animals that you would have protected are the only ways to test for organ transplant rejection or for HIV. There are 33 million people now in the world with AIDS. Twenty-three million of them are in Africa. If we can't do animal testing, which would be an assault on their bodily integrity, those people obviously are going to suffer. WISE: You certainly can't do chimpanzee or bonobo animal testing, and chimpanzees and bonobos would not be the only sort of animal you could use. You could use human beings. We don't use human beings, and there are reasons why we don't use human beings. And it's not because we can't test on them, it won't work, it's because it's immoral. It's inappropriate. Any gains we get are ill-gotten. Those gains are as equally ill-gotten if we get them from abusing chimpanzees or bonobos.

PRESS: Gentlemen, I have the feeling -- we have the feeling we've just cracked the surface, but we are out of time. Sorry about that. Steven Wise in Boston, thank you so much for joining.

WISE: You're welcome.

PRESS: Neal Boortz in Atlanta, good to have you back on the show.

BOORTZ: Thank you.

MATALIN: And Mary Matalin and I will wrap this Memorial Day show up with our closing comments -- chickens and dogs, whatever.


MATALIN: This is so wrong.

PRESS: Wait, I'm sorry. I know you wanted to start, but I have to interrupt. I just want you to realize that my dad's dog Sheeba is watching. I just -- don't say anything to hurt her feelings, please.

MATALIN: OK, I have totally changed my mind. There is a moral equivalency between chimps and chumps.

PRESS: And there's a difference between chimps and chickens. Anybody who would love a chicken...

MATALIN: From the world of moral relativism comes moral equivalency. Why don't you give rights to unborn children before you start taking on bacteria and other -- other people or things of the animal kingdom.

PRESS: Well, the professor was right, that unborn children do have rights now.

MATALIN: No, no, he's wrong.

PRESS: But, Mary, we used to once treat some people as property under the law. I don't think that was right, and I don't think it's right to treat animals as property either.

MATALIN: I don't think it's right to equate those who were denied civil rights with animals, OK? Let's not get to sound too emotional.

PRESS: I don't either, but chimps and bonobos I think could be protected.

From the left, I'm Bill Press, Good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: From the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow for more CROSSFIRE.



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