Humans and Animals: What Defines a Person?

Alex Gross '17

Staff Writer

Most people readily acknowledge that humans are animals. What most will not do, however, is acknowledge other animals as persons. What does it mean to be a person? According to some, being a person means the ability to think, reason and enter social contracts. While it is true that most humans have these abilities, not all do. Does this therefore exclude certain humans from personhood? Most would say no. So what is the difference between a human animal and a non-human animal?

The line is blurry. Most people would put a chimpanzee in the category of animal, not person. However, last week, two chimpanzees named Hercules and Leo were granted the writ of habeas corpus by a New York judge. These chimps will have their day in court to make a case for why they should no longer be used in cruel experiments at the SUNY Stony Brook labs.

This case has huge implications for human and non-human alike. The fact that a judge is willing to hear the case for Leo and Hercules means that, at the very least, the legal system is beginning to consider granting them the most basic of rights—the right to their own bodies. Hercules and Leo may be the first, but they surely won’t be the last. I see a future where nobody tests on non-human animals, where nobody wears them, eats them, uses them for entertainment or owns them. This is the first step.

We have yet to see whether the court system will rule in favor of Hercules and Leo’s right to life—but even if these two individuals do not get that right, they have opened up a door that will never be shut. My hopes are with them, not only for their own sake, but also for the sake of all the other lives that have been lost to the current system.

In the meantime, I ask all of you to think about what systems you are supporting. Was your toothpaste tested on rabbits? Were your cigarettes tested on dogs? Was the food on your plate once an individual, or did it come from one? Was the jacket you are wearing once a part of another animal?

All I am asking is for you to be aware. After all, knowledge is power. I say we take the power away from cruel industries and put it back in the hands of the consumers.