CAGE-RATTLING VISIONS OF ANIMAL RIGHTS, FROM APES TO DOGS
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2000:
Rattling the Cage
by Steven M. Wise
Perseus Publishing (10 East 53rd St., New York, NY
10022), 2000. 362 pages, hardcover. $25.00.
Visions of Caliban
by Dale Peterson & Jane Goodall
University of Georgia Press (330 Research Drive,
Athens, GA 30602), 1993, 2000.
379 pages, paperback. $18.95.
by Gisela Kaplan & Lesley J. Rogers
Perseus Publishing (10 East 53rd St., New York, NY
10022), 2000. 192 pages, hardcover. $23.00.
The Social Lives of Dogs
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Simon & Schuster (1230 Ave. of the Americas,
New York, NY 10020), 2000.
256 pages, hardcover. $24.00.
Peter Singer’s 1974 treatise Animal Liberation is justly
remembered as the book that sparked the animal rights
movement, as a distinct branch of the much older humane
movement, but time has magnified recollection of the impact it
had. Animal Liberation was the first argument for animal rights
taken seriously by the U.S. intellectual mainstream, yet years
elapsed before it gained the recognition it now enjoys.
Animal Liberation arrived to more distinguished
notice than any previous books suggesting that animals should
have rights, but actually received much less immediate attention
than Man Kind? by Cleveland Amory, which was published
at about the same time, decried cruelty with equal fervor,
and sold many times more copies, but appealed more to
the heart than to the head.
Both books were instrumental: Man Kind? in arousing
awareness of animal suffering while Animal Liberation
explored the structural aspects of human society that cause it.
Most first-generation animal rights activists were influenced by
both. Yet both together drew a mere fraction of the mass media
notice already accorded to Rattling the Cage, by attorney
Steven M. Wise.
Published coincidental with Wise beginning to teach
a course in animal rights law at Harvard, Rattling the Cage has
already rattled cages to the extent of receiving prominent attention
from The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor,
the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Associated Press, the London
Sunday Telegraph, the Salt Lake Tribune, the Montreal
Gazette, the Washington Times, the Boston Globe, the Seattle
T i m e s, and the Sacramento Bee––and those are just some of
the flagship media for vast syndicates whose original features
have been reprinted and rebroadcast by hundreds of other news
Of particular significance is that Rattling the Cage is
being covered as news, often by top-flight legal and investigative
reporters. Animal Liberation was by contrast reviewed
chiefly by moonlighting academics, and Man Kind? by moonlighting
librarians, who appreciated Amory’s remark that he
intended to put combat boots on the little old ladies in tennis
shoes. Singer had intellectual credentials as strong as those of
Wise, and Amory was already a multi-time best-selling author,
but Rattling the Cage is getting more attention because now,
26 years later, legal recognition of certain basic rights for animals
may finally be close to advancing from theory to reality.
The particular strength of Rattling the Cage is that
Wise demonstrates how this precedent-setting break from history
can occur with only small departures from previous rulings
issued on behalf of humans, particularly the unborn and the
mentally impaired. Indeed, while defenders of animal abuse
often accuse animal protection activists of favoring abortion
and ignoring the rights of the unborn, from a legal perspective
the animal rights and anti-abortion struggles closely parallel.
Wise is scarcely the first to mention this. Similar
observations were made by many of the 28% of animal rights
activists who declared themselves to be opposed to abortion on
demand in the 1990 survey which remains the only one that
ever examined the matter. Wise may, however, be the first
recognized leader in either the animal rights or anti-abortion
camp to imply on the record that the two causes may have more
in common than not.
Jurisprudence often proceeds from reappraisal and
reorganization of just but losing cases until they are finally presented
in a format that wins. Wise explains this with reference
to progress in many aspects of human rights law, and with
insightful self-critique on some cases he has unsuccessfully
advanced on animals’ behalf––some of which ended with
enduring acrimony, mostly about costs, between Wise and former
clients including Primarily Primates, Friends of Animals,
and Citizens to End Animal Suffering and Exploitation.
In law as in pitching baseball, the best teachers are
often those who learned from losing, like the six members of
the 1962 New York Mets’ pitching staff, one of the worst in
history, who were eminently successful in subsequent coaching
careers. Wise seems to fall into this category. The legal arguments
and approaches he describes will be debated, in court
and out, for decades to come. Even after some of the precedental
rulings Wise anticipates occur, people holding proprietary
interests in animals––and that may be most of humanity––can
be expected to resist the new sweep of the law through
appeals and amendments of legislation. Wise takes that into
account too. As these events occur, Rattling the Cage is likely
to remain current, and to become required reading for an ever
broader circle of activists, lawyers, students, and others needing
to understand what is happening, why.
Rattling the Cage will be a book that lasts because it
succinctly and lucidly provides the background to both current
and probable future events, while avoiding one-sided cant,
empty rhetoric, and pointless horror stories.
Goodall et al
Rattling the Cage is introduced by primatologist Jane
Goodall, who also contributed chapter-by-chapter commentary
t o Visions of Caliban, a newly reissued 1993 Dale Peterson
treatise on chimpanzees and their interactions with humans.
Reading Rattling the Cage a n d Visions of Caliban
back-to-back, it is less clear that Goodall may have shaped the
thinking of both Wise and Peterson, although she might have
influenced both, than that the Peterson book is an unacknowleged
parent of theWise book. Peterson covered much of the
same territory that Wise does in the second half of Rattling the
C a g e, reciting many of the same anecdotes in greater factual
depth and detail. Both Peterson and Wise argue boldly for
human recognition of the “personhood” of chimps and other
great apes, as our very close kin.
The major difference in their presentations is a matter
Peterson is an investigator of human and animal culture,
who wrote after extensive first-hand study of the plight of
chimps in laboratories and the lab supply and bushmeat rackets.
His plea came at a time when nothing short of cultural transformation
seemed capable of saving chimps and other
primates––both large and small––from suffering. Accordingly,
Peterson seemed to hold out little hope: victories won by conservationists
and the animal rights movement seemed transient,
not least because of the hostility of the judicial establishment.
Matters are even worse for wild primates now, and
not better, overall, for primates in labs, yet Wise is optimistic
about the prospect of legal process. He seems to believe that
the cultural transformation Peterson thought might be impossible
is already well advanced. In addition to pleading the
chimps’ case, Wise shows off a toolbox of legal tactics which
could help them, supported by precedents of various kinds.
Although Peterson and Goodall have added an afterword
to the 2000 reprint of their 1993 volume, Peterson in particular
seems more despairing than ever. And, unfortunately,
the afterword does not update and correct the 1993 text.
Especially misleading are chapters about the abuse of chimpanzees
in connection with making the 1985 film Project X,
and about the long legal fight between PETA and entertainer
Bobby Berosini over the alleged off-stage abuse of orangutans.
Both cases are described as purported examples of the judiciary
system and even animal protection organizations failing to
come through for animals.
Peterson seems to blame the American Humane
Association for the Project X debacle, but fails to make clear
that the AHA contractual authority to supervise film-making
extends only to on-set activity, and that the AHA had no
authority either to monitor what happened away from the set or
to bring cruelty charges, which would have required prosecution
by the Los Angeles County district attorney. Because two
key witnesses changed their testimony, the evidentiary requirements
to bring a case were never met. The same problem
would have thwarted prosecution in a human-vs.-human case of
Peterson initially wrote about Berosini vs. PETA
when Berosini temporarily had the upper hand through winning
a lower-court libel verdict. PETA prevailed, however, when
the case reached the Nevada Supreme Court. Failing to note
this reversal, and to reappraise the meaning of the case in light
of it, severely compromises the validity of Peterson’s perspective.
Chimps are of course not the only great apes in imminent
peril. Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers’ appeal in The
O r a n g u t a n s is as informed by direct experience as either the
Wise or the Peterson book, and is as fervent an appeal on
behalf of a voiceless cousin. It is, however, of much narrower
scope. Wise and Peterson both focus on chimps as representatives
of all nonhuman species; Wise in particular believes legal
history all but dictates that chimps (or bonobos) should be subject
of whatever trailblazing case establishes that nonhumans
deserve some of the same basic rights we confer upon ourselves.
Kaplan and Rogers’ topic is really just orangutans in
the wild, broadening to discussion of other species only in
describing how conserving wild orangutans requires protecting
Writing from the same part of New England as Wise,
but with no evident awareness of his legal analysis, anthropologist
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas in 1992 began a three-volume
defacto case for the personhood of species beyond our next-ofkin
with The Hidden Life of Dogs. She followed two years later
with The Tribe of Tiger, about cats, and is back this year with
The Social Life of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company.
Because Thomas’ subjects are pets and her style is
anecdotal, her books tend to be shelved alongside the reminicences
of Cleveland Amory about The Cat Who Came To
Christmas, et al––though her admirers argue that they should
be considered serious social science. But Thomas’ books
might better be likened to the dog stories of Jack London, who
also seemed to observe and understand dogs as keenly as
humans, and also studied, albeit in fiction, both the overlaps
and the distinctions between canine and human behavior.
London, though commitedly supportive of humane
work, probably never heard the term “animal rights.” Yet he
was a proto-animal rights activist, arguing that animals’
unique needs and nature should be respected.
Thomas, meaningfully supportive of hands-on
humane work, battles activists over the wisdom of castrating
male dogs, preferring vasectomy. At one point she was even
threatened with boycott by In Defense of Animals. Yet
Thomas makes the same case based on perceived natural rights
that London did. Her argument for vasectomy over castration
is indeed a case for putting the right of dogs to be dogs over the
convenience to humans of preferring a marginally simpler operation
which renders dogs more docile as well as sterile.
The Social Life of Dogs and Thomas’ previous books
will not break ground as Animal Liberation did, and as Rattling
the Cage is doing. But––like London, and like Amory, for
that matter––Thomas may be read by far more people, and
thereby do more to change the cultural perception of animals.
As Wise points out, laws and legal interpretations
often create precedents for broadening (or narrowing) the scope
of rights and proper conduct which go well beyond the perceptions
of the time and place. Such precedents are recognized
only later, when a majority of the people in a particular society
are persuaded to see a certain sort of situation in a different
light: slavery, for instance, or the denial of voting rights to
women, or the nature of infanticide.
If Wise is correct, the laws that should guarantee the
right of animals to live free of deliberate human-inflicted suffering
are already on the books, not just in the form of animal
protection laws but also in the corpus of precedent defining the
qualities of persons deserving of legal regard. Lacking, Wise
seems to state, is only societal recognition that this is so.