Last week – in a nearly two-hour court hearing – Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Barbara Jaffe listened to legal arguments that two chimpanzees, Leo and Hercules, should be released from solitary confinement in a New York university laboratory.
If Justice Jaffe grants Leo and Hercules freedom, it could have lasting implications for at least some other animals. Currently, in the eyes of the law, (nonhuman) animals are still considered “something,” not “someone.” Legally, they have no real, meaningful protections against being confined, tortured, and killed.
The case on behalf of Leo and Hercules – brought by the Nonhuman Rights Project – really isn’t so far-fetched. Nearly one-third of Americans believe animals should have the same basic rights as people, according to a recent Gallup poll.
I spent last week in Kenya, watching the news about Leo and Hercules from afar. While in Kenya, I was working with my medical, law enforcement, and judicial colleagues and government officials to secure health care and justice for sexual violence survivors.
While in Kenya, I was constantly reminded of the link between abuses against people and animals. I listened as my colleagues described how some rape perpetrators bribed families with cows and goats to avoid prosecution for their sex crimes. And how some cultural traditions encourage men to bid on women and girls much like they do on animals.
Though I work on human rights issues as a physician, the suffering of animals is never far from my mind – whether I’m in the United States, Kenya, or Congo.
In the everyday lives of many people and animals, suffering is rampant. Progress is slower than it should be – challenging our commitment to hope and optimism. For those of us working on the front lines, it’s easy to overlook small but important successes when the problems of the world are so overwhelming.
I try to remind myself that the path to nonviolence and justice is like a good marriage – full of celebrations and tribulations in the effort to build something strong and lasting.
But in order to build a strong defense against violence, we also need a strong foundation.
Throughout history, there are many people who have maintained a commitment to human and animal rights, all the while working to achieve justice in small corners of the world.
There are many examples, but here are just a few:
- Cesar Chavez: As an American farm worker, labor leader, and civil rights activist, Cesar Chavez co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (later called the United Farm Workers). Though Cesar Chavez is most recognized for his efforts to secure rights for marginalized farm workers, he understood the link between the needs and rights of humans and animals:
I became a vegetarian after realizing that animals feel afraid, cold, hungry and unhappy like we do. I feel very deeply about vegetarianism and the animal kingdom. It was my dog Boycott who led me to question the right of humans to eat other sentient beings.
Kindness and compassion towards all living beings is a mark of a civilized society. Racism, economic deprival, dog fighting and cock fighting, bullfighting and rodeos are all cut from the same defective fabric: violence. Only when we have become nonviolent towards all life will we have learned to live well ourselves…”
- Rosa Parks: Known as the “first lady of civil rights,” Rosa Parks ignited the end of segregation by refusing to move to another section of a Montgomery, Alabama bus when a white passenger demanded she give up her seat. Rosa Parks was also a vegetarian, and she continued to advocate for nonviolence and justice throughout her life.
- Albert Einstein: Though most people recognize Albert Einstein as a famous Nobel-prize winning physicist, he was also outspoken on civil rights and animal rights issues. He once commented:
A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, and many others remind us of how we must address the roots of violence and abuses of power before we can begin to launch ripples of progress.
While hearing arguments on behalf of Leo and Hercules, Justice Jaffe might have put it best: “The law evolves according to new discoveries and social mores. Isn’t it incumbent [upon us] to at least consider whether a class of beings may be granted a right?”