“Us” and “Them”

Posted by Stephen Wells, ALDF's Executive Director on February 2, 2009

Some of the most challenging questions about our human relationship with other animals have been posed not by philosophers, but by scientists. Charles Darwin got things started when he challenged our certainty that we are fundamentally different from all other animals – indeed proffering that we share common ancestors. Since then, many of the defining characteristics that we, as humans, have claimed separate us from other animals have been scientifically disproved. One by one, the bricks in the wall between “us” and “them” have been torn loose by scientific discovery. This renaissance in understanding has brought about many positive changes in the way animals are treated, but it also raises troubling questions about the foundation of our relationship to animals and the basis for the laws we have created to protect them.

Going back to the early 1960’s, Jane Goodall showed us that we are not the only animals to use tools–once considered a uniquely human capacity–when she observed chimpanzees using blades of grass and twigs to extract termites from their nests to eat. “But,” said establishment thinkers, “we are the only ones who make tools.” Wrong again. Chimpanzees, orangutans, crows, ravens, magpies (and the list continues) are now among our family of toolmakers and users.

Compassion has also been considered a defining human trait, yet, science has taught us that humans are more likely to inflict visible suffering on other humans than rhesus monkeys are on other rhesus monkeys–even when the consequence of not harming others meant near starvation for the monkeys.

Aside from these startling but very specific findings, there are the thousands of anecdotal stories of animals rescuing humans from peril at the risk of their own lives or perceiving things well beyond our human capacity. It can no longer be accurately said that nonhuman animals are without thought, feeling or sentiment.

What does this say about how we relate to our nonhuman neighbors? Unfortunately, centuries of laws and legal precedents that were founded on outdated assumptions are still relied upon by modern courts today. There still exists a large gap between our understanding of animals, based on research and observation, and how our laws interact with and protect them.

Indeed, under the law, animals are considered “things,” or “property,” inanimate objects valued only for their utility to humans exactly like the chair I’m sitting on. It is clear that this is not representative of how most of us feel about animals today.

For 30 years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has led the way toward changing this outdated and fundamental legal flaw. In addition to filing groundbreaking lawsuits and helping prosecutors win cases against animal abusers, ALDF has established an unprecedented network of law professionals and law students devoted to advancing the exciting new field of animal law. With over 125 chapters in law schools nationwide and in Canada, ALDF is working to assure that the next generation of lawyers, judges and politicians understand what needs to be done within the legal system to protect animals.

Please help us by signing onto ALDF’s Animal Bill of Rights and finding out more about how you can help our lifesaving work.