In an unusual media stunt, the Auckland SPCA is training three shelter dogs to drive.
SPCA Auckland CEO, Christine Kalin, sums up the rationale as follows:
“I think sometimes people think because they’re getting an animal that’s been abandoned that somehow it’s a second-class animal … Driving a car actively demonstrates to potential rescue dog adopters that you can teach an old dog new tricks. The dogs have achieved amazing things in eight short weeks of training, which really shows with the right environment just how much potential all dogs from the SPCA have as family pets.”
So long as they’re not pit bulls, I imagine.
This is, of course, an awareness-raising stunt rather than a viable long-term programme but it raises another issue that is worth reflecting on: a common tendency to advocate for animals on the basis of intelligence – as demonstrated by their ability to perform human tasks – as the grounds for moral consideration which oblige us to treat non-human animals far better than we generally do.
But there are reasons to be wary of the focus on intelligence as a criterion for moral consideration and the double-standards applied between domestic and farmed animals are especially apparent here. Cows are at least as intelligent as dogs and pigs have performed much better in tests of intelligence than either. And yet, it is abhorrent to eat dog but not pig or cow flesh. The intelligence standard as a benchmark for moral consideration becomes disturbing when we realise that in application it would mean we may justify lesser concern for infants, or the severely mentally disabled. In Peter Singer’s famous limit example of the anencephalic (i.e. without a complete brain, only the brain stem controlling basic survival functions) child, the human would have less of a right to life than any fully functional animal. According to Singer, the only thing that prevents us from eating the child is ‘speciesism‘.
Recently, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) brought a civil action to have five Orca, named Tilikum, Katina, Corky, Kasatka and Ulises, kept in captivity at Sea World in San Diego, California recognised as ‘slaves’ and hence protected by the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. For this action to succeed, the court would have to recognise the Orca as legal persons and accept that the thirteenth amendment should apply to them. Sea World has called it “baseless and in many ways offensive” and a “publicity stunt”.
Of course this approach, while garnering a good deal of publicity (even the NZ Herald published an (very basic) article), was doomed to failure. U.S. law professor, David Favre, suggested in a letter to the Associated Press that it is highly unlikely that the substantive matters of the case would even be argued as the plaintiffs will be interpreted as lacking standing. Even if this hurdle were overcome, the judges were very unlikely to consider that the original intention of the drafters of the Constitution can encompass non-humans.
Concern has been expressed by many animal advocates that this sort of publicity stunt runs the very real risk of undermining decades of careful argumentation around the recognition of the legal personality of non-human animals. Pursuing a cause of action that is virtually guaranteed to fail may establish a negative precedent which undermines future attempts to build an animal rights jurisprudence. The Non-Human Rights Project have summed up these concerns particularly well in ‘Ten Tillikum Takeaways‘.
Pioneering animal lawyer, Steven Wise, who has brought a separate action to PETA’s on different, more considered, grounds has reservations about the PETA approach. He has said it is “ill-conceived, impossible to win, and capable of damaging future animal rights legal law cases”, going further to suggest that PETA is plowing ahead because “it wants the case ‘to go down in history as the first time that a U.S. court considers constitutional rights for animals.’ Winning is beside the point.” Continue reading