Historically, cats and dogs have simply been people’s property, but their status may be changing, at least in the USA, where they can now inherit legacies and can have lawyers appointed to represent them. As a result of a number of decisions in US courts, they are said to be inching closer to rights previously thought to be only available to humans. This has many implications, as is explored in a newly-published book by David Grimm, entitled Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.1
These developments are worrying the National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR), the US equivalent of the UK’s Understanding Animal Research, as reported by Grimm in an interview with Scientific American, subtitled Animals with Rights Will Be More Than a Pet Peeve for Researchers.2 NABR have set up an “animal law monitoring project”, and the fear is that, since there is no reliable legal distinction between companion animals and laboratory animals, the use of cats and dogs in laboratories may be threatened. Even worse, “similar
legal arguments [about animal rights] could be applied to chimps and monkeys — and then rats”.2 As Grimm says, “Opposition to animal testing has been rising among the public”, and viewing “animals as more than property is probably going to be enshrined in more policies and practices”.2
The truth is that this is all just a red herring. The discussion should not be about animal rights, but about human responsibilities. Even if animals had rights, they would not have the power to exercise them. Power over them is in our hands, just as some humans can have the power to deny rights to other humans. It is humans who decide how animals should, or should not, be treated.
There are many different reasons for questioning the use of animals in experiments which may cause them pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm, including scientific, ethical and logistic reasons. Two of the ethical considerations apply specifically to cats, dogs and Equidae, as companion animals, and to chimps and monkeys, which have special cognitive abilities and a capacity to suffer which are very close to those of humans. These important considerations are discussed by Hubrecht in a new book on The Welfare of Animals Used in Research.3
One argument for limiting the use of cats, dogs and Equidae, is that they have evolved in parallel with human beings over thousands of years, leading to the development of close relationships of various kinds, as our friends and companions, but also as our servants. Dogs, for example, serve us as guides, guards, detectives and farm labourers. They may not suffer more than several other laboratory animals, but our special relationship with them imposes an extra burden of responsibility on us. We owe them gratitude, rather than further exploitation.
1 Grimm, D. (2014). Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, 352pp. New York, NY, USA: Public Affairs.
2 Fischman, J. (2014). Animals with human rights make researchers run scared. Scientific American, 17 April 2014, 2pp. Available at: http://www.scientificamerican.
com/article/animals-with-human-rights-will-be-more-than-a-pet-peeve-forresearchers/?&WT.mc_id=SA_WR_20140423 (Accessed 28.04.14).
3 Hubrecht, R.C. (2014). The Welfare of Animals Used in Research, vii + 271pp. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Wiley Blackwell.