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Furpeople: non-human personhood and the animal rights movement

By: Cameron Sidhe, Managing Editor (

It comes as no surprise to any pet parent that the animals we keep and love have emotions all their own, but for naysayers, science has recently confirmed that dogs do indeed experience a range of feelings that parallel ours. After extensive training of chosen dogs, MRI scans demonstrated that dogs have a similar pattern of neuron activity when shown pictures or scenes meant to induce happiness or sadness. While this doesn’t mean that dogs have the exact same justification or experience of emotions, it does mean that they have a capacity for feeling and understanding that demonstrates a complexity worthy of recognition and protection.

These findings come on the heels of changing legal definitions of animal intelligence and protective categories. Several higher-order species, including dolphins, have recently been given the status of ‘non-human persons,’ meaning that they exhibit a level of intelligence, emotional expression, and social complexity deserving of special protections. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be running into dolphins in a federal courthouse or seeing Flipper’s name on a congressional ballot, but that certain activities like hunting and inhumane medical experiments are restricted or outright banned for use on dolphins because of their higher-level behavior and comprehension. Legal organizations and animal rights groups are lobbying for dogs to receive the same recognition and protection.

The shifting social perception of animals, however, brings a host of complicated questions that won’t be easily resolved with a single legal definition. The treatment and significance of animal species differs drastically across cultural, political, social, and class lines; even within societies, there are vastly disparate opinions about certain species. While dogs are considered beloved companions in Western cultures, countries such as South Korea don’t have a long history of dog ownership and see them either as playthings of the rich or a good source of protein. While this might turn the stomach of an American reader, consider a similar situation with cows, where Indians revere them as holy creatures and Americans bicker over the best way to sear one over an open flame.

Returning to dolphins for a moment, their status remains a source of international contention. The recent documentary The Cove highlighted the practice of dolphin hunting in Japan, where thousands of dolphins are rounded up and bludgeoned to death over the course of a few days. Some Japanese still enjoy dolphin and whale meat, despite the controversy recently surrounding the practice, and activist and animal rights group pressure has not changed their minds. Whales, another highly intelligent species, have similar battles arising over their uses. Another recent documentary, Blackfish, centered its narration around the death of a dolphin trainer at Sea World by Tilikum, a wild-captured orca who has been responsible for three human deaths during his captivity. The documentary focused on the inhumane treatment of orcas and other large aquatic mammals, contending that the facilities at Sea World and other animal amusement parks are inadequate, and that the best place for an orca is in the wild with its own kind.

Beyond cultural differences are the differing conceptions of animal use and needs, and how they interact with and serve humans. Dogs have long been used for hunting, protection, and companionship, and in recent centuries have begun working as rescue animals, drug sniffers, and guides for the disabled. The problem is: did anyone ever ask these dogs if they wanted to work in these occupations? A human similarly forced into service would have a very straightforward court case to pursue, but the use of dogs in service positions is justified by noting the dogs’ enthusiasm for their tasks. I am certainly not saying that these dogs don’t enjoy what they do, simply that personhood and legal rights for dogs brings with it a variety of thorny issues to consider and resolve.

As the issue moves beyond dogs, elephants, dolphins, whales, primates, and other higher-order animals, a completely different set of issues will arise involving the use of rodents, birds, and fish in medical and behavioral experiments, as well as being culinary sensations. Human perceptions will need to shift along similar cultural lines as those with dogs – but the issue could get much thornier when it comes to the animals that serve as food staples in different regions. For example, I keep guinea pigs as pets, and for my two fluffy little rodents, their lives involve sleeping, eating, playing, and more eating. However, for many of their cousins, their life is confined to a small wire cage, being injected or covered in cosmetics or hygiene products to determine their safety. Because of guinea pigs’ unique similarities to humans in Vitamin C absorption and gestational diabetes development, they are often used in medical experiments to test the efficacy of new drugs or supplements, tests that can obviously go very awry in the early stages. Elsewhere, in South America, guinea pigs live on the dirt floors of houses, waiting for their turn to be that night’s dinner. They even hold a festival once a year where guinea pigs are dressed up in cute costumes and paraded through the streets – before being roasted and flavored for a delicious feast. As much as it may bother me to know that guinea pigs just as adorable and affectionate as my own are eaten or blinded by shampoo, it is really my place to deny someone their cultural heritage, or to halt the progress of beneficial medicines because of my own discomfort? Accepting the personhood of dogs will lead to more discussion of personhood and rights in general, and it would be naïve to assume a simple resolution to such complex problems.

Future generations will look back on us with the same horror and incomprehension as we reserve for our predecessors over issues that we, as our forefathers did, consider simple facts of life, commonly held beliefs that only a few extremist groups consider problematic. Just as we gasp in disgust at human sacrifices or racially motivated murders, so will they see our use of animals as experiment subjects or entertainment as horrendous – but so will they, too, have their own issues that their children and grandchildren will see as backward and worrisome. Seeing dogs as property, or guinea pigs as dinner, or dolphins as entertainment, is becoming an issue discussed with more frequency and passion, and perhaps in our lifetime we will see shifts in public perception and legislation. But for now, as research flourishes and opinions proliferate, it seems best to simply love our dogs, or guinea pigs, or cows, or fish, with just as much care and consideration as we reserve for our own children, and hope for the best for our fellow living beings around the world.


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