Are Animals Entitled to the Same Respect and Rights as Humans?
An Animal Rights Article from


Daphne Bramham,
August 2009

With our bigger brains, we bear a greater responsibility to animals than declaring them equal and providing them with a bill of rights. As women and children around the world can attest, it’s often not worth the paper it’s written on.

I have never doubted Darwin’s theory. But when an adolescent, female orangutan swings down from a tree in the Malaysian rainforest, landing only a few meters away from me, I look into her dark face rimmed with fiery red-orange hair and am certain.

Arms’ length apart, the urge to touch her is almost overwhelming. But it’s forbidden at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

She and several dozen others were there to be rehabilitated to the forest and to have her reliance on humans broken. Since I saw her last fall, Kara has been released into the wild.

Orangutan means “people of the forest” in Bahasa, the official language in Malaysia and Indonesia. Unique to Borneo, they are endangered because their habitat is being replaced by palm oil plantations.

Before I left Sepilok, I “adopted” two babies — Sen and Sogo Sogo. I get updates on them and can follow their progress at OrangutanAppeal.

At times, I’m slightly repelled by the anthropomorphizing that seems necessary to stave off extinction — the naming, the “adopting” and photos of the babies in diapers (which to be fair is a perfectly understandable thing with the “orphans” in the centre’s “nursery” where humans are their “surrogate mothers.”)

But they are not human. They are animals, albeit one of four species of great apes which share 99 per cent of our genes.

Yet determining our relationship with them — as with all species whether polar bears, cocker spaniels or cockroaches — requires an honest assessment of what we perceive them to be.

Are they our property as Canadian laws seem to presuppose, allowing us to kill baby seals, destroy the environment to the point that polar bears are at risk, raise chickens in cages so small they can’t turn around and use animals as spectacle even if it means that every year some die at rodeos and in zoos?

Or, as sentient beings, are animals entitled to the same respect and rights as humans?

Mid-spectrum are animal welfare advocates such as the humane societies, which support the responsible care of animals whether they are pets or used for food or work.

But calls for an Animal Bill of Rights are growing. While Canada fiddled with the Criminal Code provisions on animal cruelty only enough to modestly raise the penalties, Britain and Spain signed on to declarations giving great apes the rights to life, liberty and protection from torture.

Animal rights is a relatively new idea in the West that has gained traction largely because of increased concerns about the environment. But it’s an ancient idea in Asia where pacificism for Jains and Buddhists has long translated into strict vegetarianism.

“Non-violence applies not just to human beings, but to all sentient beings — any living thing that has a mind,” the Dalai Lama wrote in My Tibet. “Where there is a mind, there are feelings such as pain, pleasure and joy. No sentient being wants pain: All want happiness instead.”

While the Great Ape Project focuses only on extending human rights to orangutans, gorillas, bonobos and chimpanzees, other groups such as the American Legal Defense Fund propose basic rights for all animals that mirror those included in declarations of women’s, children’s and human rights that include freedom from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse.

But that’s not all. The American Legal Defense Fund wants the right of wild animals to natural habitat and a self-sustaining population enshrined as well as the right of farm animals to an environment that “satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs” and, the right of all animals to “have their interests represented in court and safeguarded by the law of the land.”

There is much that I agree with in the various animal bills of rights. It seems inarguable that torturing or being willfully cruel should be illegal. But after that it’s tricky for anyone who eats meat, eggs and even dairy products.

It seems inarguable that we, humans, should not destroy the very planet that sustains us and so many other living things.

Yet, without a massive, disruptive and even painful reorganization of our economy and society, we’re barrelling down that road in our SUVs.

Palm oil is a good example. A sought-after industrial lubricant, it’s also in huge demand for soaps, face creams and cooking oil.

Increasing demand for it means that in Africa, palm plantations now provide desperately needed money to women’s co-operatives and direct financing for hospitals.

But in Malaysia and Indonesia, increasing demand is gobbling through the tropical rainforests without which orangutans, the Asian rhinoceros, so-called pygmy elephants and Sumatran tigers will become extinct.

Sogo Sogo’s little face smiles out at me from the photo on my desk.

Us or them?

With our bigger brains, we bear a greater responsibility to animals than declaring them equal and providing them with a bill of rights. As women and children around the world can attest, it’s often not worth the paper it’s written on.

We need to find ways to share the planet, doing the least harm possible for all of the children — human and animal.

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