In all the fallout surrounding this weekend’s stories about a camel lying in its own feces in an undersized pen at a Toronto petting zoo, one question being asked is whether animals should be granted some inalienable rights much like humans have.
It’s really not much of a stretch. Morally, we already believe that most animals – whether cows, dogs or camels – should be given basic things like adequate food, shelter and protection from abuse and suffering. We already have provincial guidelines and institutions like the Ontario Society for the Protection of Animals to ensure these basic guidelines are being met by animal owners.
And as a society, we have advanced to a point where it seems unimaginable that there was even a debate over allowing women to vote or blacks to have the same basic rights as white people. So to put basic animal rights into legislation should not be considered a great leap.
The problem is that we view animals as lesser beings than ourselves. We use animals for food, for transportation and for entertainment. Animals don’t have the same intelligence or moral capacity as humans, so granting them rights is the equivalent of giving rights to inanimate objects or insects.
But time and scientific advancements have taught us otherwise. Animals are as biologically complex as humans, they have consciousness, and they make conscious choices to live in such a way as to give themselves the best quality of life. It has been argued that adult mammals like chimpanzees have souls and make altruistic decisions much like humans do.
And because we do not see animals as biological robots, circuses have begun shutting down, modern zoos are putting animal welfare first and just last week Seaworld announced it would stop breeding whales in captivity.
So when we see a polar bear roasting in the heat in Argentina, a tiger being whipped at a zoo or when we see a camel in a tiny pen lying in its own feces on a concrete floor, we morally know something isn’t right. We know that the animals are not enjoying themselves and we know that they should be treated better.
In Ontario, we look to the OSPCA to step in and do what’s right. But in the case of the petting zoo camel, the OSPCA said there was no issue and deferred the gaps in petting zoo legislation to the provincial government without comment. The OSPCA has also given the Bowmanville Zoo repeated approvals, despite repeated allegations of animal rights groups, in part because Ontario’s existing legislation requires only the bare necessities for life and the organization is authorized to remove animals and press charges only if the animals are in “immediate distress.”
That’s where an animal’s bill of rights could come in. If it’s clear an animal’s basic rights are not being met and the bill has actual teeth, a police officer or OSPCA officer can step in on behalf of the animal and arrest and charge the animal’s owner. Like children being taken from abusive parents, the animal would be assigned to a shelter or rescue organization until the owner can prove the animal’s rights are being met.
And anyone running a zoo, circus or petting zoo would be required to pass regular inspections that ensure animals are being treated respectfully.
Because it’s 2016. An animal’s bill of rights is long overdue.
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