Campus & Community

Scholars probe changing legal, cultural status of animals

5 min read

“We are in an animal moment in the 21st century,” Marjorie Garber announced to her audience in Harvard Hall last Wednesday evening (May 9).

And by the time the panel she was chairing concluded, it would have been hard to disagree. Many different European countries are introducing or have introduced legal and sometimes even constitutional protections for animals, at least for great apes. Scientists are positing that animals may feel emotions very much like those of humans. And animals are sometimes demonstrating better interspecies communication skills than do humans.

Garber is chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English and American Literature and Language at Harvard University, and perhaps most to the point, the author of “Dog Love,” (Simon & Schuster, 1996) an exploration of the relations between dogs and their humans.

The Humanities Center-sponsored event she moderated May 9 was titled “Animal Crossings,” an exploration of the place of animals in the history of science, natural history, evolutionary biology, literature, and the law.

The panelists considered whether animals considered closer to humans, either biologically (great apes) or domestically (dogs, cats, horses) should have more rights than other creatures, either less cuddly or not cuddly at all.

And implicit in the discussion was the idea that however much human attitudes toward animals may be becoming more enlightened, future generations may still look back on the present time as this age looks back in disgust at slavery.

Peter Waldau, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy and assistant professor of environmental and population health at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, said, “If you look across our societies today, [you see] a great deal of ferment in our attitudes toward other living beings.”

Waldau sounded a strong warning, however, against the idea that mere “education” would necessarily lead people to treat animals more ethically. Ethics is not the strength of the academy, he said, going on to quote Oberlin College environmentalist David Orr: “Without significant precautions, education can equip people merely to be more effective vandals of the Earth.”

He cited many countries granting legal rights to animals over the past 15 years. More than 80 courses on animal law are being offered at law schools. Animal rights figure into torts, criminal laws, and wills and trusts, Waldau said.

But Waldau, who founded the Animals and Religion Consultation at the American Academy of Religion, warned that trying to advance animal rights strictly through litigation would risk “turning activists into bystanders,” since courts are inherently “reactionary” — conservative and reactive.

The big question for Waldau was, “Who will we invite with us onto the scales of justice?”

Harriet Ritvo, Arthur J. Conner Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a frequent writer on human-animal relations, commented that conceptions of animals “can be seen as part of a protracted democratization within the academy” — the same academy that has focused on women’s rights, labor movements, colonialism, and other movements.

She added, “The traditional boundary between humans and animals has become more permeable” since the Victorian period.

Even in that period, though, she noted, a farmer with a cow that had rejected the bull she was to mate with could sound very much like a father whose daughter has rejected the suitor who was deemed suitable for her. Loyal dogs and horses were praised by their masters in the same language used for faithful employees. Activists against cruelty to animals regularly used the language of opponents of slavery to make their case. And social insects were often held up as models of human behavior.

Janet Browne, Aramont Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, is at work on a cultural history of the gorilla.

The gorilla as an animal became widely known in the developed world about the time that Charles Darwin published his writing on evolution. The gorilla became a “boundary object,” marking the line between human and animal — “a new presence onto which humans could project their fears,” as Browne put it.

Are gorillas prized for their similarity to mankind, or for their differences from it? she asked rhetorically. “Or are they prized for being more human than we are ourselves?”

A number of gorillas — such as “Digit,” whom primatologist Dian Fossey studied, “become celebrities in their own right,” Browne said. This makes them easier for historians to track than some “little people” without a paper trail.

Peter Sacks, John P. Marquand Professor of English at Harvard, spoke of the role of animals of keeping us “in the present tense” at a time when so much experience is abstracted. He closed his presentation with his experience in Africa of having seen a plover protect its nest from a herd of elephants that appeared about to trample it unwittingly. The plover buzzed the lead elephant in the herd, flying right over its head in a way that got its attention. And then it buzzed again.

Then the lead elephant, sensing what the bird was trying to communicate, turned the whole herd around, out of the way of the nest. Sacks hailed the elephant as an environmentalist in its way, a creature with the intelligence to avoid the much smaller creature, “and not because the plover is like the elephant.”