Monkey Business: Animal Rights and Human Responsibilities

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on September 24, 2012

Did you know we are all 50% banana? That’s right. We are all a little B-A-N-A-N-A-S. We share 50% of our genetic material with a banana tree. But we also share almost 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees.

For many years, I taught courses in which students argued the cruelty that comes with factory farmed meat is acceptable because humans are at the top of the “food chain.” Separate, unique, and dominant. But are we? And does it matter? Just what are animal rights–and what are our responsibilities as humans to uphold those rights?

Top of the Food Chain

We like to imagine ourselves as age-old hunters–yet evidence shows we were mostly scavengers, and harvesters of nuts and berries. We see ourselves as master of our domain–and yet we claim we must protect ourselves from animals who are bigger, stronger, wilder. We insist we are unique–yet we find other animals capable of language, tool-building, cultural heritage, and deep, astounding empathic connections. Dogs who sense when we are having seizures. Gorillas who can communicate using sign language. Chimps who adopt baby tigers. Horses who protect turtles. And animals who die of a broken heart when their family members are murdered.

We imagine ourselves as tribal, war-like, competitive beings. But–like closing a book part of the way through–this is not the whole story. We are also capable of friendship, love, and compassion. Empathy is part of our nature. It is not a side dish; it is the main entrée. And because we are amazingly complex beings, we can choose what we eat. We can partake of the brutal, or we can eat of the empathetic.

What is empathy?

empathetic prarie dogsIf sympathy is an emotional connection with someone of a shared experience, empathy is having that compassion without any shared experience or frame of reference. It is perhaps the most beautiful part of our nature. The ability to feel, to imagine, and to care, combined with our ability to reason and to make sense of the mystery. It makes us who we are. And we share it with animals too.

Empathy is moral. Frans de Waal, professor of psychology at Emory University, challenges this age-old belief that our actions, decisions, feelings are merely selfish. In his book, The Age of Empathy, he shows that we don’t just feel for another. We feel with them. When you yawn, I yawn. When you smile, I smile. When you cry, I get a little choked up myself. We hold hands. We run together. When we speak, our bodies mirror each other in the language of symmetry. We survive through cooperation.

The Animal Kingdom

And though we may like to distance ourselves from the “animal kingdom,” by placing ourselves above it, again the truth is that we are neither kings nor paupers. We are a part of that animal community–and the language that shapes our worldviews reflects our fascination with our animal nature.

Bear with me. And quit horsing around!

Yes, I’m talking to you. I mean, just look what the cat dragged in.

What’s wrong? Ants in your pants? Bee in your bonnet? Cat got your tongue?

I’m sorry, am I badgering you? Don’t be such a chicken!

You know you’re foxy! You big turkey! You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Especially when you make puppy eyes!

In fact, you’re cock of the walk! The cat’s meow!

Though you’re also a bull in a china shop.

You’re like the elephant in the room! A fly on the wall. A fish out of water. You really get my goat.

At least, after my cat-nap. Because I’m so dog tired. Let’s not open that can of worms.

It’s all monkey business.

Animal Imagination

From our sayings to fairytales, myth, and lore, animals feature prominently in our imaginative landscapes. But we distance ourselves with words like property, pets, pests, objects of study, test subjects, nuisance, creatures, wildlife–and none of these terms are quite adequate. We use animals to market our products, and products with an animal logo sell at a much higher rate than those without. Our sports teams call up wild, powerful animal icons. As children, we sleep with “stuffed” animals. From our goat-like vision of the Devil to our cultural preoccupation with vampires, werewolves, the Loch Ness monster, we secretly long to feel reconnected with our own animal nature, even while we fear it.

Why Animal Rights?

So why do we speak of animal rights? A concern only with animal welfare, like tolerance for diversity, still allows us to dominate and choose what we tolerate. It isn’t the same thing as affording equal protection under the law. Using animals but trying to be nice about it still fundamentally allows us to determine when, how, and where we choose to be kind to animals. We must draw upon our empathic nature and respect the rights of sentient beings, whether human or nonhuman.

Certainly, rights are not enough. We already abuse human rights as we abuse the rights of animals. We must change our mindset from one of fear, cowardice, and dominance–to one of interconnection. We are all connected, from the roots to the sky; from the banana tree to the chimpanzee.

Joining the team at the Animal Legal Defense Fund gives me hope for our future, despite the overwhelming brutality we see every day and the obstacles we face. I truly believe that by understanding our empathic nature we can coexist.

What can you do?

We believe animals need lawyers. If you are interested in getting involved, or serving as a litigation fellow at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, please check out our Events & Opportunities page, info for Law Students, Scholarships, and Clerkships, or email us at for more information.

5 thoughts on “Monkey Business: Animal Rights and Human Responsibilities

  1. Katie McDougall says:

    As a believer, I would like to see animal defenders create programs to help humans who work in or own businesses that cause harm to animals transition to a humane livelihood. Let’s face it, not everyone will develop empathy, some human will always be about dominance and making money off of sentient beings. Let’s help them step up too.

  2. Jennifer says:

    That’s a wonderful comment, Katie, thank you.

  3. peter verin says:

    thank you for so finely articulating both the simplicity and mystery of animal interconnections ……….

  4. Jennifer says:

    Thank you Peter. I think understanding our interconnections to animals, our environment, and to each other, would significantly impact the way we see everything. A real shift in our thinking is going to have to include this idea of interconnection.

  5. Marilyn Byrne Graziano says:

    Marilyn Byrne Graziano I agree entirely with Katie McDougle

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