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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Of Rights and Responsibilities

Animal topics have been in the mainstream press in big doses in recent days. The Boston Globe Magazine on Sunday ran its first-ever pets issue, with a series of articles promoting shelter adoption and volunteerism, looking at expanding veterinary treatments, and exploring a range of other subjects. The New York Times Magazine also ran a cover story by James Vlahos on the trend of prescribing mood-altering drugs for cats and dogs. Yesterday, NPR’s "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" picked up on Globe writer Vicki Constantine Croke’s feature story about end-of-life decisions and the soaring costs of health care for pets.

Pet_owner Pets are part of our lives and culture like never before, and Americans spend $43 billion annually on pet care—more than we spend on movies, recorded music, and video games combined. So it’s no surprise that pets are in the mainstream media; but the more controversial animal issues are breaking through as well. The New York Times also ran a series of commentaries, in Sunday’s Week in Review section by Donald G. McNeil, Jr. and in Monday’s Opinion section by Adam Cohen, about the issue of legal rights for animals. The Spanish Parliament recently passed a resolution granting some legal rights to great apes, which has sparked philosophical discussion about the status of nonhuman creatures.

The discussion has largely been an academic one, focusing on whether certain species should be granted legal rights, whether they should no longer be consider human property under the law, and which species would qualify for such a radical change in status. But as The Humane Society of the United States' chief of animal protection litigation has argued in the Animal Law Review, the debate seems to be more about form than substance, and the solutions for animals can be much simpler.

For example, the Great Ape Protection Act, currently being considered by the U.S. Congress, seeks to provide many of the protections for chimps the Spanish resolution does, but without engaging (or attempting to resolve) the controversial and polarizing issue of granting legal rights to animals. The legislation would end invasive research on chimps and retire those who are federally owned to permanent sanctuary—not because our closest living relatives have “rights” but because they simply should not be confined for decades in steel cages at taxpayer expense and used in harmful experiments that don’t yield advances in human health.

And it’s not lost on reporters that progress is already being made for animals in the law—even farm animals—without the “rights” nomenclature. McNeil’s article includes mention of the federal Humane Slaughter Act requiring that livestock must be rendered insensible to pain before they are killed, and Cohen reports on the big factory farming interests opposing Proposition 2 on California’s ballot, which would phase out tiny crates and cages and give animals the space to turn around and stretch their limbs.

Congress has passed dozens of laws in recent years to provide more decent and humane treatment of pets, farm animals, wildlife, and animals in research. This year alone, there are already 70 new animal protection laws in the states, and with a number of legislatures still in session and with several ballot measures to be voted upon, we may yet break last year's record of 86 new state laws to help animals. Lawmakers recognize that stopping cruelty to animals is a universal social value, and they are passing common-sense, rational reforms not only to address individual acts of cruelty but also to curb the worst abuses in institutional settings—such as factory farms, puppy mills, the fur trade, or research labs.

We need not wait for the resolution of the big-picture theoretical debates, because change for animals is happening now. There is no question that we have power over animals—we can exercise that power through deliberate cruelty and indifference to their suffering, or through kindness, mercy, and good stewardship for their care.

The real debate is over how we choose to treat the powerless on this planet, and it says more about us than about them. It’s not a question of animal rights, but of human responsibility.

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