Do Non-Human Beings Have Rights?

In the matter of the mistreatment of animals, there is almost universal condemnation. Such behavior is beyond the limits of what our species ought to do to a living thing. We consider it “inhumane” to torture, abandon or exploit our dogs or other domestic animals, even if those creatures are considered “private property” as Michael Vick’s dogs would have been.

A century ago, treatment of animals in our personal experience was as wide as our thinking extended with regard to the rights of non-human creatures. We had no conception then of the larger, global plant-and-animal “webs” we now learn about in grade-school biology–relationships that depict food-networks, nutrient cycling, ecosystems and biomes.

It has been only a half century since the field of ecology began to measure and record the flow of matter and energy within living communities. That exploration has made evident the complex and interacting checks and balances that regulate the rise and fall in living populations and impact the habitats that support them.

Even the smallest creatures–earthworm or honey bee–play an essential role in human agriculture and the greater economy. This is by far a much more complex and inter-dependent world than we have understood until recently.

With improvements in technology, we have gained an ever clearer appreciation that humanity’s health depends on the well-being and resilience of creatures far beyond the familiar realm of pets or domestic beasts. This knowledge–only available in the last blink of history–expands the scope of what we ought not do with regard to both living things and the ecosystems of water, earth and sky that sustain them.

In a world soon moving past 7 billion of our species alone, we can’t trudge ahead like so many isolated islands of personal entitlement, acting as if only our rights merit attention. We can’t become fixated on the me-here-now as our world faces overwhelming pressures and moves dangerously near to tipping points.

These impending crises urgently demand from all of us a them-there-then vision–wider in scope, less self-absorbed, more forward-looking and more powered by cooperation than the world-view of our ancestors who lived out their lives in an uncrowded and largely intact world of seemingly limitless land and resources.

The history books are filled with accounts of civilizations which, lacking our hindsight and our predictive sciences, did not treat water or soil or natural capital in a sustainable way. Had they known what we know, they might have felt a responsibility to protect critical living populations and habitats before it was too late, so that their empires, their offspring and their cultures might have endured.

We face decline and collapse as possibilities within our grandchildren’s lifetime. Humankind has never had such an overwhelming weight of evidence that calls for us to act on the fact that the health of all living things and life-systems is crucial to our long-term well-being. The biosphere is afflicted with a multi-front perfect-storm crisis, largely because we’ve been indifferent to more than a century of animal abuse, if you will.

We’ve neglected the care and feeding of creatures that are under our care. We’ve been indifferent to inhospitable conditions, that by our wars on nature and each other, we’ve created for the plants and animals of rain forests, deserts, oceans and prairies. We watch species simply wither and disappear from earth in the most extensive, ongoing extinction ever caused by the actions of a single organism: us. We’ve not shown prudent stewardship over the field with which we’ve been entrusted.

We must come to regard the wider reach of nature as worthy of the same protections we have granted the animals we know and love and, in our short past, included in our too-narrow sphere of ethical treatment. Then, we will no longer look the other way.

We will condemn and not reward those responsible when mountaintops or rain forests, oceans, soils, tundra or prairie are mistreated. We will abhor injuries to our fragile and voiceless world. We will express our disgust over those abuses in the same way we do when another’s pets or working animals suffer because they have been treated with cruelty or indifference. We will become a truly humane society, and stand in harm’s way, for the sake of beasts and biomes; and we will do so for the sake of our own future.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I will link this article to an e-mail to my (big) e-mail list. You put a lot of work into this essay, and it’s a good one. I want it read more widely.

  2. The French that live in the commune believe that animals have no souls and are, therefore, not deserving of decent treatment.
    I disagree most strongly

    We are all a part of the web of life, we all have our place and our rights, whether we be a human or the simplest single-celled life-form that swims in the depths of the deepest ocean.

    I just wish that we humans would behave less destructively and more kindly ….

    Lovely post, thank you Fred

    PS pop over to my blog (the one and read my latest post. If you and your wife would like a holiday in France then my house would be at your disposal
    I am being selfish, I’d like to read some Fragments From France!