The Shifting Frontiers of Animal Rights

Activists yawn as animals lurch toward a hybrid future.


Sometime after the 14-year-old retired actor and chimpanzee Travis Herold was shot and beheaded by Stamford, Connecticut, police in connection with an aggravated assault against 55-year-old Charla Nash, but before former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick finished serving a federal prison sentence for conspiring to violate the civil rights of dogs, South Korean scientists announced the birth of a beagle that glows in the dark.

Ruppy the ruby puppy is a transgenic animal whose belly and paws glow under ultraviolet light thanks to genetic code from sea anemones. A team led by Seoul National University scientist Lee Byeong-chun created the animal by using a virus to insert fluorescent genes into the nucleus of a dog fibroblast cell. The researchers then removed the nucleus from another dog's egg cell and implanted the fibroblast's fluorescence-enriched nucleus into it. The new organism began life as an embryo in a Petri dish before being inserted into a surrogate mother. After several false starts, Ruppy and her littermates grew to term and were successfully delivered. The glowing beagles have now reached spawning age.

The most striking thing about Ruppy is how little attention she attracted from animal rights activists. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals made no comment. Nor did the Humane Society, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or such beast-friendly philosophers as Peter Singer and Matthew Scully. What objections did come were infused with sarcastic Weltschmerz rather than outrage. "Now those women who insist on being impregnated even though their bodies clearly do not believe they should be…can potentially become pregnant more easily because of poor glowing puppies," wrote the blogger VeganVerve.

You might attribute the blasé activist reaction to the built-in ethical dilemmas of Ruppy's case. To argue that the scientists have mistreated these dogs you'd need to establish that the beasts would have been better off not existing in the first place. The concept of wrongful life has actually been litigated in the court of human behavior, with mixed results.

In 2000 France's highest court granted malpractice damages to the family of 17-year-old Nicolas Perruche, who was born with mental handicaps related to his mother's having contracted rubella during her pregnancy. Perruche and his family argued that had the mother been correctly diagnosed, she would have aborted the child. Effectively, the question of wrongful birth has been given legal weight not only in France (where suits like Perruche's were subsequently outlawed) but also in the United States. In 2003 a New Jersey obstetrician-gynecologist paid a $1.2 million settlement to a family after failing to diagnose "Fragile X syndrome," a form of mental retardation caused by a defective gene on the X chromosome.

Do animals have any legal recourse against human beings? Elizabeth Hess' wonderful 2008 book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human describes the terrible dislocation of an ape. The title character is a chimp who was raised in a series of foster homes from 1973 to 2000 and taught American Sign Language in a now-forgotten behaviorist effort to discredit the theory advanced by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky that there is a universal, specifically human grammar.

In hindsight, the late-Aquarian experiment was clearly ill-conceived. The chimp's first adopted family combined the human children of two broken homes, headed by a wife who thought of herself (whether literally or transubstantially is not clear) as Nim's mother and a husband who was descended from an ancient Boston Brahmin clan and suffering a vast midlife crisis. Nim bit people, engaged in well-planned vandalism, and disfigured one human companion. After the experiment was abandoned, he did time in an experimental medical facility. He ended up a bitter inmate in a cage at a Texas ranch, poring over old sign language charts and objecting to his confinement.

Hess' achievement is to describe all her characters, human and chimp, in the same expansive terms they seem to prefer for themselves, so that both species take their places in a wider drama. When Nim, freshly moved to an Oklahoma primate colony, breaks open a water pipe on the ceiling of his cage, we learn that his new handler "ran to find his everreliable employee Tiny, known to be a mechanical genius, and the two of them managed to cap the pipe." The reader isn't sure whether Tiny is a large man or a chimp with wrench skills. The literary effect raises a legal question: If Nim's skill at signing abstract phrases had been slightly better, could he have sued somebody for putting him through all this?

The idea is not as far-fetched as it seems. Michael Vick pled guilty to "conspiracy to sponsor a dog in an animal fighting venture and conspiracy to travel in interstate commerce in aid of unlawful activities," yet he served time in Leavenworth because torturing and killing dogs were considered shocking to the conscience. Animal cruelty legislation presumes that nonhuman creatures are more than inanimate property but less than creatures with full-fledged rights. How broadly should animal welfare law infringe human welfare? I'm not sure a dog's right to life should take precedence even over the right of NFL fans to see a great athlete in his prime. And I'm positive it shouldn't supersede an adult human's right to liberty.

But if we grant that pit bulls have a compelling right not to be tormented for entertainment, what of a beagle's right not to be bred as a chimera in pursuit of nebulous science fiction benefits that may never come to pass? And shouldn't the catalog of rights increase as we move up the scale of intelligence? Primates possess more credible personal dignity than dogs, yet the treatment given Travis the chimp (killed while attacking a police car) and Donge the lowland gorilla (put down by the Calgary zoo after her diverticulitis resisted treatment) shows they don't enjoy anything like due process. The popular understanding of animal rights has evolved since Dr. Moreau commanded, "No spill blood." Is the law evolving with it?

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a member of the hominid family.