The rough road to animal personhood
Beaks are extremely important to birds, allowing them to hold objects and feed themselves. One can easily imagine the problems that a blue and gold macaw named Max experienced, when his beak was pulled off after two fights with other birds. Human caretakers helped him eat again, and when his remaining lower beak grew too long, they regularly shortened it so it was the right size for his tongue.
In search of a long-term solution, a South African team of veterinarians, doctors and other professionals led by Prof. Gerhard Steenkamp worked together to design and attach a 3D-printed beak for Max. As has been previously covered on Flayrah, many other animals have also received prosthetics when they've needed them.
(I use the term "animal" here purely for simplicity, meaning "non-human animal". Biologically, humans are as much animals as macaws, dogs, lizards and frogs. The distinction between them is purely cultural, and I can recommend Richard Dawkin's essay The tyranny of the discontinuous mind for further details.)
The example of Max, and others, shows us that humans can care about specific animals and are willing to devote a large amount of time, money and effort to improving their quality of life. While this is admirable, not all animals receive such treatment. In other situations, animals are seen as disposable goods, notably when it comes to food production.
Eating animals is a practice fraught with issues. Meat tends to be less healthy than plant-based food sources, is the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in food production, contributes to a large decline in the population of wild mammals, and there are serious ethical concerns related to killing and eating our fellow sentient beings. For some, the lesser intelligence of animals compared to humans justifies their use. Others take after British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who wrote:
The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?"
Indeed, a recent survey of nearly 1800 Western philosophers revealed that only 48% considered it permissible to eat animals or animal products under ordinary circumstances. This represents a large shift in the way that we treat animals, and this stance is not confined to academia. Proposed legislation in the UK recognises that even crustaceans and molluscs are sentient, and seeks to outlaw cruel practices such as boiling lobsters alive.
Perhaps the biggest problem facing the world today is anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. It is well-known that farming animals for meat is a major source of greenhouse gases, and shifting our diet is one of the simplest and easiest steps to combat climate change. One of the proposed remedies to our food emissions is to farm insects for protein. However, there is growing evidence for insect sentience as well, and some scientists are concerned that if insect farming were to become commonplace, current misconceptions could lead to large-scale violations of insect welfare. The need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is urgent, but we should not do so at the expense of our fellow sentient creatures.
When animals are farmed for food, they exist as a means for humans to acquire nutrients. Kantian ethics states that humans should only be seen as an end in themselves, and not as the means to an end. As society has shifted from a discussion of animal welfare to a discussion of animal rights, the question has been raised whether animals should also only be treated as an end. Viewing animals as ends would mean that they have intrinsic worth, existing regardless of the instrumental value that they provide to humans. An important requirement for respecting the intrinsic value of animals is to recognise they are sentient beings with their own thoughts, emotions, memories and desires. In legal terms, this could be accomplished by recognising animals as persons.
While the idea of recognising animals as persons may strike some as absurd, it is not unheard of. In 2013, India said that dolphins and other cetaceans should be seen as non-human persons. A year later in 2014, an Argentinian court declared that an orangutan named Sandra should be recognised as a person, and ordered her release from the Buenos Aires zoo. No English-speaking country has gone this far yet. When the question arose concerning a female elephant named Happy, held in captivity at the U.S. Bronx Zoo, a New York judge dismissed giving her personhood.
The story of Happy is not over yet, as the Nonhuman Rights Project, who filed the lawsuit on her behalf, will be taking it to the New York Court of Appeals. One thing has changed since the original case. In Colombia, animals are permitted to sue. Due to legal proceedings surrounding Pablo Escobar's escaped hippopotamuses, this resulted in a federal U.S. court recognizing the animals as "interested persons". Two attorneys have pointed out that this does not mean that their status under U.S. law has changed. Despite that, it may help influence the result of Happy's case.
Regardless of the outcome of Happy's legal situation, there is an urgent need to rethink our relationship with animals. Despite copious scientific data showing that animals are sentient, can use tools, transmit culture, have morals, and use basic language, many humans still treat them as the mindless automatons René Descartes declared them to be in the 1600s. It is necessary that society moves forward to our current understanding: animals are more complex than we give them credit for, and that they, like humans, possess intrinsic value. This applies not just to those species that have traditionally been seen as pets, but also to those that have traditionally been seen as food.