A case for animal rights

a-case-for-animal-rights-1451280368-3390The Nation

We have seen throughout history, escalation of restless forces that seek to achieve a status they have been denied. Though there was support lent to them by members of privileged classes, in the final stage it was the suppressed people themselves that tipped the scales in their favour. We see that pattern in the civil rights and suffragette movements in the U.S. and the feminist movements in Pakistan. No matter who the suppresser has been, they were never completely able to suffocate the will of the people to fight for rights they were denied. But it cannot be so where the suppressed class has no voice at all; where the dominant class has won the lottery of nature over the subservient class. In the case of animals, the masses cannot rise on their own.

This not only a struggle for power and freedom, but specifically, for the status of “personhood”. In a general context, personhood is understood as “the status of being a person i.e. a being that has a legal personality, rights, protections, privileges…”.Tom Regan, philosopher and author of A Case for Animal Rights, writes that we cannot limit moral rights to those we perceive as rational beings. He points out that we routinely attribute inherent value to humans who are not rational, including infants and the severely mentally impaired.

The point to be taken from this is that we accord value, legally and socially to such individuals because they have the ability to suffer. It is not the ability of being rational that should determine whether one has inherent moral rights.

For animals to be accorded with rights is an alien concept in most parts of the world, particularly in Pakistan. However, the sub-continent already has roots of an animal-rights movement manifesting during the British rule. The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1890 was enacted and remains valid law in Pakistan. It has, however, long been in need of amendment. For example, Section 3 of the Act of makes cruelty to animals “punishable for a first offense punishable with one month imprisonment, or 50 rupee fine, or with three months imprisonment, or 100 rupee fine for a subsequent offense which is committed within three years of the first one”.

The antiquated law is just one part of the problem. The second and more inhibiting factor is the implementation of the statutory powers.

Even if we ignore the village dogfight pits and beating of donkeys in moving traffic, there is a systemic disregard for the ethical treatment of animals. Kaavan, the elephant imprisoned in the Islamabad Zoo is only one miserable example of that. After being estranged from his family and brought to Pakistan at the age of one, he has spent his entire life in fetters. This has taken place under the watch of the local government, and in fact enabled by them. There is no excuse for a living being that feels and suffers to be denied its liberty without a just cause. We have given him the status of ‘property’ but not ‘person’, even though he is manifestly closer to the latter. Uzma Khan, Director World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan says, “There is a lack of guidance with regards to treatment of animals in zoos. There is no defined standard that they have to reach. For example, elephants are highly social animals that cannot be kept in isolation the way they are in Pakistani zoos.”

Even if we deny that animals have intelligence and emotional range, mere lack of intellectual capacity cannot take away an animal’s right to be treated as a ‘being’. This brings us back to Regan’s theory. He argues that the crucial attribute that all humans have in common, is not rationality, but the fact that each of us has a life that matters to us; in other words, what happens to us matters to us. In Regan’s terminology, we each experience being the “subject-of-a-life.” If we take this to ascribe inherent value to individuals, we must then ascribe inherent value to all subjects-of-a-life, whether human or non-human. The basic right that all who possess inherent value have, he argues, is the right never to be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

This argument is not to be disregarded as ‘some new-age vegan philosophy’. The world has slowly been moving in this direction for decades now. In 1992, Switzerland amended its Constitution to recognise animals as ‘beings’ and not ‘things’. New Zealand went as far as granting basic rights to five ‘great ape’ species in 1999, and banned their usage in research, testing or teaching.

Closer to home, India has been taking great leaps in this area. Though it inherited the same Act of 1860 as Pakistan, it went further and passed The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960. This Act set up the Animal Welfare Board of India with the purpose to advise the government on animal welfare laws. It also works to ensure that laws related to the treatment of animals are followed and provides funding to rights organisations.

In 2013, India banned the use of captive dolphins for entertainment. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests said, “…various scientists who have researched dolphin behaviour have suggested that the unusually high intelligence; as compared to other animals means that dolphin should be seen as ‘non-human persons’ and as such should have their own specific rights and is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose.”

It seems that the global perspective is shifting. We are beginning to see animals as more than a means to our ends, and as more than just ‘things’. This fight resonates darker periods of our history where many humans were regarded as property of other humans. In 1772 in the case of a black slave, James Somerset, the King’s Bench in England passed a landmark judgement that changed his status from ‘property’ to ‘person’. Though Lord Mansfield claimed that his intentions were not to abolish holding of slaves, the ripples of his decision had that very effect. This goes to show that where societal norms fail to evolve on their own, the law must give impetus to social movements.

What are constricting the animal rights movement in Pakistan are not just the plethora of other social and political problems, but the blatant denial of the importance of this issue. Ms. Khan tells us, “We have been working on the Punjab Animal Welfare Act for a very long time, but it has yet to be enacted. This issue is low in priority and so the budget allocated to departments responsible for animals is very low.”

The crucial first step is to explicitly change the legal status of animals from ‘things’ to ‘beings’. The legislature must act and enable us to create further regulations for the ethical treatment of animals, particularly those used for labour in massive numbers all over the country.

Animals feel and suffer no less than us. They are not our property any more than the slaves were the property of white men. Their continued enslavement and abuse is immoral under the established principles of human decency.