Human and animals have constructively interacted for centuries. These interactions have been critical in shaping human cultures both in the past and the modern societies. Extensive studies have helped to establish the many crucial roles animals play in modern human societies. The roles have changed to some extent over time, but the majority of the roles remain the same. Continuous interaction between human and nonhuman animals has inspired sociological studies that have established that some animals are more intelligent than others. Moreover, some have a higher level of consciousness than others. These findings have further intensified the need to determine whether animals have rights, and if so, whether they should enjoy the same spectrum of rights as do human beings. This paper investigates the various roles animals play in human cultures. It will also attempt to discern the types of animals that have or ought to have rights, the patterns of protecting animals and the possible motivations for promoting ethical treatment of animals and environments. Analysis indicates that, while all the animals have minimum irreducible rights, nonhuman animals- animals exhibiting enhanced levels of intelligence and consciousness as compared to others- enjoy more rights as is commensurate with their elevated status.
Roles of Animals in Human Culture
Animals play varied roles in developing and sustaining the cultural aspects of the human society. Some of the major roles include the role as subjects of roles as entertainment objects, roles as scientific objects, an inspirational role for creative artists such as poets and painters and, most significantly, roles as pets. The most conspicuous role that animals are currently playing in the human society is the role of pets (Shir-Vertesh 420). Human beings are increasingly adopting animals as their pets. Households with children tend to have a higher prevalence of having pets (Mitra 17). The pet animals include cats, dogs, rabbits, outdoor and indoor fish, horses and fowls, and many others. Cats and dogs are the popular pets.
Nonhuman animals, as pets, provide companionship to human beings (Shir-Vertesh 420). This is based on the functionalist view of the society; the perspective that the society is stable and seeks to maintain this stability by maintaining the equilibrium. As such, all the social phenomena that exist in a society react to maintain this stability, smooth-functioning and the existing equilibrium. According to Schalow (63), this view presumes that it is the lack or inability of the human beings to consummate their relationships with one another that necessitated the adoption of pet animals. However, this view has been refuted by many scholars. Even though there is no acceptable theoretical framework explaining the reasons why people keep pet animals, the trend is showing an increase in pet owners (Lee 458)).
When appropriated as pets, nonhuman animals can play variety of other roles including projective roles, sociability roles and surrogate roles. Animals play the projective role when the pets are appropriated to mirror the character of the owner of the pet. The inherent attribute of the pet and the level of care they demand from the owner give meaningful insights into the caring abilities and other personality attributes of the pet owner. The pets are perceived as an extension of the pet owner. They symbolize the personality of the owners (Mitra 18). For instance, the owners that keep dogs and cats as pets are invariably perceived to be gentler than those that, let us say, keep fowls or horses. This is because dogs and cats need a higher level of attention and care as compared to other animals. Pets play the sociability role through providing a common platform for human-to-human social interactions. The common bond and affection the human beings share for the pet provides grounding on where other interactions can spruce from. The third major role in companionship role is the surrogate role. The pets supplement human social interaction as a friends and mates (Shir-Vertesh 422). Some pets have even substituted human relationships (Shir-Vertesh 425). While this amount of care is a good social force, it has also been blamed for breaking up families where one partner is devoting excessive amounts of time on a pet in the process neglecting the family (Shir-Vertesh 424).
Nonhuman animals have also been used by scholars for a long time now to determine the extent of animals’ cognitive abilities and come up with theories on the same. It is these studies that have enabled the classification and differentiation of human beings and nonhuman animals. Nonhuman animals have enabled the progress of discourse on whether language and rational thought are a prerequisite to have justice (Lee 462). A lot of debates have been going on concerning the role language plays in advancing justice and morality. The philosophical point of view is that if animals can prove that they are just and moral yet they do not have language or rational thought then the hypothesis that justice and morality are directly proportional to the use of language and rational thought would be disproved.
Nonhuman animals have been used for a very long time for entertainment purposes. Bull fighting, cock fighting, horse racing, polo and use of dogs for hunting and many other sports (Gonchar). Through this form of entertainment, the social bond between members of the society is enhanced. Furthermore, nonhuman animals have inspired poets, painters and other creative artists in the society through symbolism. These animals have led to the development of cultures through the growth of languages. Additionally, animals have been used extensively as scientific objects for scientific experiments. The use of animals in scientific speculation and testing is probably the most prevalent role bar the use of nonhuman animals as pets (Gonchar). Despite these opposing forces, nonhuman animals continue to play a crucial role in combating infectious diseases, neurological studies, genetics and reproduction studies among others.
Animal Rights and Extent of Applicability
All animals, whether intelligent or not, have a conscience or not, and whether wild or domestic, have certain minimum rights. These irrevocable rights include the right to life and to live in their natural habitats (Mitra 18). Regardless of the animal under consideration, no person is at liberty to kill the animal without any concrete, justifiable reason. It is also inhumane to remove the animals from their natural habitat to an unfamiliar habitat where they will struggle to cope.
However, certain animals enjoy more rights than the rest. Sociologists refer to these animals as nonhuman animals because they exhibit certain human capabilities that set them apart from the rest of the other animals (Mitra 19). For instance, these animals can register pain; they have some cognitive ability and memory, and some can even feel compassion for other animals or humans (Schalow 65). These include animals such as cats, dogs, dolphins, chimpanzees and most of the primates. These animals are accorded extended rights such as the rights not to be in abusive relationships and the rights not to have their freedom restrained; rights that are not extended to the other animals who do not demonstrate the aforementioned extraordinary capabilities. For instance, a nonhuman animal such as a dog can enjoy the right not to have its freedom curtailed, unlike a pet snake. In both instances, the animals are pets; however, since the dog is intelligent, has better cognitive abilities, memory and can become compassionate, the dog can be allowed to roam freely. Even if it goes outside the homestead, it can find its way back. The same cannot be said of a snake or other animals without the aforementioned characteristics that give them an extent of human nature.
In all the instances, it is human beings that decide the types and extent of rights the animal will enjoy. The animal rights issue is more of an issue of morality than an issue of legality. The legal system merely divides the world into human beings and everything else. The legal systems confer rights to human beings while the other lot, comprising of animals and all the other things, have no legal rights (Hinkle). It is, therefore, a combination of personal beliefs and the morality of a people that determines the rights accorded to the animals in their midst (Mitra 22). Animals that play the most roles tend to be accorded more rights than those with fewer roles to play in human societies. For instance, a donkey, by its usefulness to human beings, enjoys a wider spectrum of rights than does animal pets.
Culture’s Morality and Treatment of Animals
A culture’s morality compass determines the treatment of animals in that society (Gonchar). The human beings, through interrogating their morality and other cultural aspects such as societal norms, expectations, values and taboos determine the types and extent of rights certain animals should enjoy. The ideas of a culture’s morality and the way a culture treats animals are thus hinged on the aspects a culture holds most dear. For instance, since most cultures in the Western countries value equality and democracy, the animal rights are legally protected in animal welfare laws unlike in other parts of the world where the aforementioned values are alien. The cultural values thus determine how the members of the society ought to treat animals. Buoyed by the expanded democratic space, some human rights activists are even gunning for the animals to be accorded legal personhood so that they are accorded the same treatment as human beings. This move has been opposed vehemently in most instances with the vast majority of the people reckoning that while animals should enjoy a considerable array of rights they should not amount to the equivalent of human rights. In a culture where the morality compass does not regard democracy as a vital cultural right, then it is virtually impossible even to have animals enjoy the basic legal welfare protection (Shir-Vertesh 428).
Animal Protection and Levels of Consciousness
In line with the minimum irreducible rights that animals ought to enjoy, they also have certain protections that should be guaranteed. For instance, animals should be protected from being captured arbitrarily and without any proper justification (Gonchar). Animals should also be protected from enslavement and mistreatment (Hinkle). A person cannot just go into the forest reserves and capture a leopard or puma and enslave as his own. In fact, there has been a huge uproar on the issue of capturing killer whales and using them for income generation purpose through entertainment in marine parks and other establishments (Zimmerman). Moreover, animals should also receive protection against being arbitrarily slaughtered or otherwise killed or massacred (Mitra 23).
In the course of offering these protections, human beings have been noted to offer more protection to animals who tend to be “closer” to human beings and those with a superior level of consciousness (Schalow 65). In most instances, the animals perceived to be closer to human beings play certain roles that confer benefits to human beings. The protection relationship is thus hinged on the animal’s ability to continue making a positive contribution in the human being’s life. If the levels of positive contributions from the animal diminish, the level of protection follows suit. For instance, for an animal whose closeness to human beings can be attributed to its material worth then it can easily lose human’s protection when it ceases to be economically viable. If an ox, for example, no longer pulls a wagon or plough a field, it is highly unlikely a farmer would be excessively concerned to ensure it has been fed and afforded a comfortable environment. The same applies to pets. The study by Shir-Vertesh (425) established that most young families start neglecting their pets once newborn babies come into the picture. The close relationship the pets had with human beings deteriorates as they get replaced in their companionship role (Shir-Vertesh 425).
Human beings also tend to offer a higher degree of protection to animals that have a higher level of consciousness, for example the dolphins and elephants. The most plausible reason to explain this phenomenon is that the conscious are perceived by human beings as smart, capable of discerning what is happening to and around them. They are able to sufficiently process and reciprocate feelings (Cruikshank 18). Since their superior level of consciousness enables them to register pain and employ their cognitive senses, human beings can detect these emotions, and are in the process implored to shield these animals against experiences that have adverse effects. The ability of the animals with a superior level of consciousness to reciprocate emotions is what necessitates the superior protection from human beings, and rightly so. People who have tried to be compassionate or hyper-protective of animals with no conscience have often encountered resistance and even got attacked by the animals they seek to protect (Zimmerman). A good instance is the case of Dawn Brancheau, a killer whale trainer who was killed by Tilikum, the killer whale she had trained and performed with for years (Zimmerman).
There are several possible reasons that motivate human beings to promote ethical treatment of animals and environment. The first possible motivator is the compulsion of moral responsibility (Lee 457). Most of the human rights activists argue that human beings are the superior species and should, thus, appropriate their superiority to protect the lesser species to ensure their wellbeing. Another possible motivator is the need to ensure sustainability; to hedge against extinction of the endangered animal species lest human beings follow suit in the long run (Mitra 25). An additional possible major motivator is self-interest (Zimmerman). Agencies and individuals lobbying for increased efforts to protect animals may have vested interests in the animal’s wellbeing and development. For instance, countries may institute statutes to protect animals so as to promote their tourism sector while other may do so to be in sync with the cultural expectations among other reasons.
In conclusion, it is evident that humans and animals have an extensive and intensive relationship. The bulk of it is hinged in the roles animals play in human cultures and the morality standing in society. The main cultural role of nonhuman animals was that of being a human companion. As pets, these animals could play projective roles, sociability roles or surrogate roles in relation to their owners. The other cultural roles that animals play include entertainment roles, inspirational roles, and roles as scientific study objects. All animals enjoy certain irreducible minimum rights. However, some, especially the ones with superior intelligence and levels of consciousness, enjoy a wider spectrum of rights and increased protection from human beings. However, since animals are inherently inferior to human beings, the rights they are accorded should not, at any one time, rival those accorded to human beings.