When Marc Jurnove first visited the Long Island Game Farm Park and Zoo in the spring of 1995, he found Barney, a chimpanzee, living in bleak isolation, with only a swing to distract him and no other chimps in sight. Concerned, Jurnove sought legal action. However, the case that followed, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Glickman (1998), did not focus on Barney’s psychological well-being, oddly enough, but that of his human observer. As one of the deciding judges wrote, “Mr. Jurnove’s affidavit is an uncontested statement of the injuries that he has suffered to his aesthetic interest in observing animals living under humane conditions.”
Of course, none of the interested parties in this case were actually convinced that animal welfare is merely a matter of taste. But the notion of “aesthetic injury” is just one means of circumventing a hard legal fact: Property can’t sue, thus neither can animals, nor can a guardian ad litem bring criminal or civil action on their behalf. Some animal rights advocates are hoping that will soon change. In Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (2000) and the recently published Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights (both Perseus), attorney Steven M. Wise proposes “legal personhood” for certain highly intelligent nonhuman species, beginning with our evolutionary next-door neighbors: chimpanzees and bonobos, who are endangered in the wild. Wise’s idea is a major point of contention in the far-flung animal rights debate, tangled in ageless questions of justice, philosophy, biology, even the very definition of being human.
Protections, if not rights, for animals have been on the books for decades. But though the Animal Welfare Act requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to set minimum standards of nutrition and shelter for captive animals, they’re difficult to enforce (especially against elusive traveling zoos, who are among the worst offenders), the fines are token, and the rules are skimpy—the Game Farm hadn’t even broken any of them. Though Jurnove had standing to sue for once-removed distress, Barney himself had no judicial recourse.
Jessica Winter is executive editor of newyorker.com and a former editor at Slate and Time. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Bookforum, The Believer, and many other publications. She lives with her family in Flatbush, Brooklyn.