A Draft Declaration on the Human Rights of Non-Humans

Switzerland is set to banthe long-time practice of boiling lobsters alive, and hopefully other countries will quickly follow suit.

Lobsters and crabs are unique among livestock, in that they can be bought from grocery stores while still alive, and then killed in this horrific manner. It’s upsetting, certainly, but just as certainly it would be less upsetting for most people thanif they saw someone burn a calf alive in a kitchen in order to prepare veal. But, why?

Decades of research on animal cognition revealed some surprising insights into the minds of not only our closest relatives, but our most distant fellow creatures. It’s only recently that the science of animal intelligence has started to merge with discussions of animal rights and humane raising and killing of livestock. But from an ethical perspective, it’s always been implicit that intelligence is a key question in animal rights. My first time engaging with the question was a graffito I encountered as a student. Paraphrasing Jeremy Bentham, it read: “The question is not can they reason, but can they suffer?”

Animals hold a strange place in human law. Unlike human beings, animals can be owned as property in most places. But unlike televisions, kitchen tables, and other inanimate objects, animals are offered some protection from harm, like torture and unnecessary cruelty. Decades of research suggest that we have tended to underestimate the lived experience of the animals we have afforded sometimes very meager protections, including our friend the humble lobster.

What is a more reasonable bare minimum level of rights that should be extended to different classes of animals?

The Rights of Great Apes

“The right to life, liberty, and protection from torture.”

I’m taking this directly from the Great Ape Project, which a coalition of primatologists, anthropologists, and ethicists foundedin 1993. Human beings are great apes, alongside close cousins the chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans. Like human beings, these related species experience love, fear, and depression, are highly social, and are capable of complex communication. Individuals from all three species have learned sign language, with vocabularies of hundreds of words, including abstract concepts like love, honesty, and trust. None of our close cousins should be in zoos, used in medical experiments, or hunted for any purpose.

The Rights of Cetaceans

The right to life, liberty, and protection from torture.

Dolphins, whales, and porpoises are also incredibly social and intelligent. Though they are more closely related to pigs than apes, and have evolved an intelligence comparable to great apes. Therefore, they should receive all the same rights. They experience depression, loneliness, and are distressed at being in captivity or threatened with pain or death. That meansno more capturing cetaceansfor Sea World or other entertainment organizations, no whaling or huntingfor any purpose, and we have to take reasonable precautions to avoid killing cetaceans by accident, including noise pollution and water pollution.

The Rights of Cephalopods

The right to life and protection from torture.

These are a unique group, way smarterthan their ecological role would suggest. Even though squid, octopuses, and cephalopods are small, short-lived, and hunted by almost every predator in the ocean food web, many species exhibit remarkable intelligence. Horrifically, the practice of eating either recently dismembered and still squirming octupus or squid, or swallowing them whole, is widespread. Their intelligence, while very different from our own, is surely too substantial for us to eat them. On the other hand, there’s no indication that a well-fed cephalopod is unhappy in captivity.

The Rights of Livestock, Hunted Game, and Sea-Caught Animals

The right to protection from torture.

The separation of species into companion animal and livestock categories is shaky, to say the least. At least some of the animals Westerners treat as members of the family–dogs and cats, particularly–are eatenin other parts of the world. Pigs are about as smart as dogs. It’s true that cattle, chickens, deer, rabbit, and lobsters are less intelligent than the above-mentioned groups. But do they experience fear and pain? Absolutely. Any animal killed for food should be killed humanely. Anything short of a quick and painless death is torture. This includes the psychological torture of fear of death when cattle are dragged onto a killing floor and smell the blood of their companions as well as the long-standing ill treatment of lobsters and other crustaceans that kicked off this discussion in the first place.

Human rights aren’t just about how we treat other humans. They’re about the rights we extend to all living and thinking beings. Our empathy-based extension of protections to those creatures that cannot protect themselves is part of the privilege and responsibility of being human.

With that in mind, do these rights go too far, or not nearly far enough? I’m interested to hear your take in the comments.

Photo credit: Hans Hillewaert.


Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

Thank you for caring and sharing

heather g
heather g9 months ago

This sentence perfectly sums up my views:
Our empathy-based extension of protections to those creatures that cannot protect themselves is part of the privilege and responsibility of being human.

Michael F
Michael Friedmann9 months ago

Thank You for Sharing This !!!

Alanna R
Alanna R9 months ago

Completely agree.

Angela J
Angela J9 months ago


Chrissie R
Chrissie R9 months ago

We need to concentrate on the WELFARE of animals, not rights.

Jetana A
Jetana A9 months ago

I think the human species would benefit greatly from affirming the rights of other creatures.

Danuta W
Danuta W9 months ago

thanks for sharing

Evan O.
Evan Oakley9 months ago

Thanks for this! It's way past time we take into account the sentience, intelligence, sensitivity and complexity of other animals in a more formal way. These are living creatures who love their families, have personalities and experience a range of emotions.

I'm sure many here who have had the pleasure of being close with animal companions of many species not listed could quickly build on the groupings above.
For example, mice and rats are specifically exempted from any animal welfare protections and are the most abused in labs from all but the most well-intentioned and potentially useful experiments to the most obviously pointless and cruel.

Both rats and mice are highly intelligent, sensitive, social creatures who form loving bonds with their families and kind people. Rats are capable of empathy and will delay gratification to help other rats. Mice compose and sing songs to each other.

It's amazing what you can see when you slow down and really pay attention to a creature of another species over a long enough time.

Roslyn McBride
Roslyn McBride9 months ago

Could not agree more.