Should animals have ‘human’ rights?

Animals like gorillas and chimpanzees are closely related to humans. But they have no rights. Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics tells DW why great apes should be legally recognized and why animal interests matter.

Gorillas are critically endangered with fewer than 175,000 left in the wild worldwide, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The death of Bantu, the last male western lowland gorilla left in Mexico, brought the debate over animal rights back into the limelight, particularly with regard to those those who spend their lives behind bars.

DW had a chance to speak with Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University.

You are one of the co-founders of the so called Great Ape Project. What exactly is it all about?

It’s an effort to achieve basic rights for great apes, for chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans, in particular. We know that they are like us in many important ways: that they are complex beings with rich emotional lives, that they are capable of reflecting on their situation, of thinking, of problem solving, that they are self-aware, that they can think about the future. We argue, that in these respects they are so like humans, that we should give them some basic rights. Meaning rights to life, liberty and protection from torture. We would like to see them recognized in the law as people, therefore as beings who can bring a case in the courts. Obviously, through a guardian or advocate, as a small child would bring a case in the courts. But not simply (being seen) as items of property.

Philosoph Peter Singer Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at the Princeton University and author of numerous books

Are terms such as “freedom” and “captivity” not merely expressions of our own creation? Isn’t there a difference between humans and animals due to our capacity to think rationally?

That is certainly true. But you can’t explain these concepts to a two year old either, nor to someone with profound intellectual disability. Nonetheless, we do not lock them up and put them on display for others to look at. We don’t perform the kind of medical experiments on them, that have been performed on great apes. Although, fortunately, now medical research on great apes in many countries has been prohibited and that is, I think, partly a result of the work of the Great Ape Project. But given that we think all human beings have some basic rights, irrespective of their capacity to reason or reflect, or think about freedom as an abstraction, then to grant that to all humans beings, but to deny it to chimpanzees and gorillas is simply saying: “Oh well, they are not members of our species, and only our species has rights.” That is simply not defensible. We think it is very similar to racist or sexist ways of limiting the rights of non-european races, or those of women, as it has happened in the past.

Gorilla Bantu playing (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa). Bantu, 24, died of cardiorespiratory arrest while he was sedated by veterinarians and prepared to be transferred

Some argue that zoos serve an educational purpose. An irreplaceable meeting place for man and the animal, without which we would not care about them so much…

I am not aware of any evidence that looking at animals in captivity inclines us to care more about them. I suspect that one major lesson that people absorb through caged zoos is that we have the right to confine animals and use them as, basically, forms of entertainment. I think the educational lesson would be better, if they were kept in much larger enclosures where they can live a more normal life for their species. We would learn much more from that and we would also learn greater respect for them.

You are an advocate of the philosophical current called Preference Utilitarianism. What does this mean with regard to animals?

I am a utilitarian. I think that the right action is the one that has the best consequences. In terms of what those consequences are, utilitarians classically have referred to pleasure and pain. Preference utilitarians refer to the satisfaction of preferences. Whichever form of Utilitarianism we take, it’s clear that animals come in, because they do experience pain and pleasure and animals do have preferences, obviously for avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure, as well as perhaps many other preferences as well. And we are not justified in disregarding or discounting those preferences or those pains and pleasures, just because they are not members of our species. That is why from a utilitarian perspective, animals clearly do have a kind of moral status, that means that we have to consider their interests, and we should not regard those interests as less significant than ours, just because they are not members of our species.

In your book “Animal Liberation” (1975), widely considered to be a pioneer piece of work within the realm of the animal advocacy movement, you discuss the rule of man over animals. Does the apparent growth in interest around topics such as vegetarianism and the defense of animal rights reflect a shift in the greater public consciousness?

A baby bonobo is sleeping on the belly of her mother in a zoo cage (Photo: Christoph Schmidt/dpa).
Great apes like these bonobos should be granted basic rights says Singer

Today there’s a greater interest in animal rights, and in part that certainly has something to do with a shift in our diet. Particularly away from factory farmed animal products. Also, I believe there is an increasing recognition that this is environmentally not sustainable, and that it contributes to climate change. So I think that there are a lot of factors that are leading to a significant increase in interest in vegetarian and vegan diets. And I’ve noticed through traveling in many countries that vegan options have become available. Ten years ago you would not have found them.

You have often talked about your positions on assisted dying and suicide, pleading that one should be able to decide freely when to end his or her life. How does this apply to animals?

I think there are differences between different kinds of beings in their capacities to choose their own death, and this would be true with humans as well. You have to be of a certain age, and mentally competent in order to receive physician assistance in dying, in those jurisdictions in which it is legal, for example the Netherlands or Belgium or more recently Canada, and some states of the United States. Non-human animals don’t meet those conditions, and therefore others do have to make that judgement. Sometimes, and I think anybody who has had a cat or a dog might be aware of this, animals become ill and are clearly suffering, and there is little hope of recovery. Then we have to make a decision for them, and that should happen in zoos as well.

People demonstrating at the World Vegan Day in Berlin (Photo: Bernd Settnik/dpa) More and more people are getting concerned about animal rights as seen at a demonstration in Berlin

You travel a lot. Which general differences in the protection and treatment of animals do you encounter?

I have seen significant improvements in Europe over the past couple of decades, particularly with regard to factory farming. Some of the worst forms of confinement have been prohibited, for example the standard battery cages for egg laying hens. Those are advances which, to the best of my knowledge, do not exist in Latin America. So in general you’d have to say that the region needs to catch up with where Europe is on that kind of progressive legislation. Also on matters like the testing of cosmetics on animals. So there are problems, and not only in Latin America, but also in Asia. Very severe problems in China in terms of animal welfare, where there is really a national animal welfare war.

Why do you think is it so difficult to get through claims for better living conditions for animals in zoos, let alone a ban on keeping apes and other animals in them?

It is always hard to produce change against established interests, and zoos have been doing what they’re doing for a long time. Especially when you have urban zoos with rather limited amounts of land, it is very hard for them to change, because they just do not have the space to provide the proper conditions for animals.

An ice bear in a zoo in Munich in front of people watching (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Müller). Zoos have less space in urban areas

They would have to greatly reduce the number of animals and the variety of different species that they have. For this they worry that people would not come to visit them anymore, so it is a constant struggle. I think we really need to get zoos out of these urban areas where they don’t have enough space, and move them outside cities where they can be more like a sanctuary or wildlife park, and provide dignified conditions for animals.

Interview: Nicolás Mandeau.
Peter Singer is professor of bioethics at the Princeton University and author of numerous books, including most recently: “The Most Good You Can Do. How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically”.


6 thoughts on “Should animals have ‘human’ rights?

  1. Animals have feelings, emotions, they are not human but at the mercy of humans, and man must treat them ethically, or we lose our own humanity.

  2. Yes. Ethics and empathy don’t stop at humans, and we’re not as great as we elevate ourselves to be. Basically the right to habitat, clean air and water, food, and to be respected and left alone without interference by us, and that means from gawking at them too. Animals are not ours
    to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any other way. We take the right, as we have done throughout our history of might makes right, rationalized.

  3. Are non human animals conscious and sentient? Can they think, feel pain, feel a range of emotions (anger, guilt, love, hate, friendly, anxiety, depression, sadness, and more)? Can they make a plan, engage in purposeful behavior, use consequential thinking in choosing actions? Are they aware of individual self in relations, the environs, their family, their needs of food, safety, shelter, belonging? Do they adapt to the environs, to living with other creatures including man? Do they teach their young and protect them and the family? Do they play? Do they evaluate and solve problems? Do they coordinate their actions? Do they mourn, grieve, show empathy? Do they communicate with their kind, and others? Some animals demonstrate all these qualities. They show signs of stress, desire for affection, attention, and belonging. They communicate with vocalizations, body language. Most approach humans with caution, even our pets, and they are stressed with insecurity about our show of affection for them. My dogs approach, sometimes with ears laid back, averting gaze, then are relieved when I reciprocate affection. They seek affection, companionship, belonging, love.Yet, despite sentience, humans raise other animals for food (aka ranching), trap them for their fur, kill them as a recreational opportunity (aka hunting). State and federal wildlife agencies primarily manage (aka kill) them to “control their populations”, remove “nuisance” animals, some of which certainly would control their own populations. So humans ranch, hunt, trap, use as source of food, use as a source of recreational killing opportunity other sentient and conscious animals. Are humans then “humane”? Humans kill with kindness and with a vengefulness, and wantonly. We humans justify and rationalize our treatment of the animal kingdom by perceiving and treating animals as not sentient and conscious, while perceiving ourselves as special, self-appointed special and above the rest of the animal kingdom, created in God’s image with all else created for us, and as center of the universe. What arrogance, self-centeredness, selfishness! Stupendous narcissism! What horror! Without our tools, superior not. Man is weak without clothing and weapons and more of a parasite than useful niche in the ecology. We appoint ourselves as special and superior with our self-centered perspective on our place in the universe. The Earth and her ecology, wildlife would be better off without us. That is our worth and place in the ecology.


  4. So Harambe was gunned down in his enclosure in the Cincinnati Zoo. He was no safer there than he would have been in the wild. One wonders—if Harambe’s basic rights had been protected, would they have tried harder to save him?

    I believe the great apes should have rights, but I suspect it will be a struggle. There is the long theological and philosophical tradition that posits an unbridgeable gulf between human and animals, and many people will fight any change that would elevate the status of nonhumans. There is also the legal issue. Now animals have no legal standing and are regarded as property. It is hard to imagine that the majority of human beings would want them to have any protected interests that would interfere in our treatment of them.

    Again, if the great apes had been accorded more rights, would Harambe be alive? Would he have been in a zoo in the first place? Would he have been endangered or would the lives of apes be protected in the wild? Obviously, rights for the apes would benefit them, which is why any change will be fought by human beings, who will be the ones to lose their dominance.

    I have read “The Great Ape Project,” which contains 30 chapters discussing the pros and cons. One of the chapters, “The Case for the Personhood of the Gorilla,” by Patterson and Gordon note that Koko has a vocabulary of over 1000 words, understands spoken English, and achieves score between 85 and 95 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Tests.

    But if the status of the great apes is going to depend on direct comparisons between the apes and H. sapiens, then there will probably be no positive resolution. I would like to suggest the great apes be given rights because of their close evolutionary history and the fact that we share 99% of the same genetic material. They are intelligent, social, and capable of solving problems. That should be enough.

    When it comes down to it, all animals should have rights in accordance with their needs and interests. Since they are sentient beings, we should not be able to harm or exploit them or treat them as property.

  5. I wish we’d redirect more funding to habitat preservation and stopping poaching, instead of zoos. This would make it a lot safer in the wild – protection from their biggest danger, humans. Natural deaths not related to us and our activities if life, and you can’t avoid that. Losing their freedom is too big a price to pay. Animals do not live longer in captivity than they do in the wild, that is a big myth. Animals go insane in these places, just as people would do. It’s the quality of life that counts. I can think of one other case where the fencing enclosure was not up to par – a tiger that was being tormented by 3 teenagers, and the fencing wasn’t as high as gov’t regulations required. I think they paid a ton of money to the families after the tiger ripped one of them to shreds, much more than what proper fencing would have cost, plus lives were lost. Of course, the tiger was destroyed. I believe the Cincinnati Zoo should have better fencing, they use the ridiculous defense that nothing like that had ever happened after nearly 40 years, something was bound to go wrong. 40 years ago, there weren’t cell phones to distract people, and there’s a lot more people visiting nowadays, and we all know that curious children can get away from their parents. I don’t blame the parents because their are many, many more like them. It’s the zoo’s responsibility, to the animals and visitors. I still don’t think they have done enough. They make it too much about the experience of the visitors than the safety and health of the wildlife imprisoned there. I think most reasonable people wouldn’t mind more separation if it meant safety for both the animals and the people who visit.

  6. And when these zoo directors forego their six figure incomes, I’ll perhaps taken them more seriously. It obviously doesn’t go to updating the fencing.

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