To Animal Rights and Beyond

Gary B. Swanson

To Animal Rights and Beyond

As a matter of course—apologies for the avoidable pun—a zookeeper in Zhejiang province, eastern China, one day earlier this year dropped two live white rats into the enclosure of a venomous green snake, this being the routine way such reptiles are fed in captivity. Usually, in this circumstance, the rats scramble about and try to hide to avoid their inevitable and terrible end.

On this day, however, after the snake had caught and begun to swallow the first of the victims, the second repeatedly attacked the head of the serpent in what appeared to be an attempt to save the other rodent from being consumed. It inflicted multiple bites on the head of the snake.

All to no avail, however, as the snake, relentless, slowly completed the swallowing of the first rat. This would have normally led, then, to the second rat serving as the dessert course, except that the zookeeper, having been impressed by its “heroics,” removed it and set it free.1

The account of this on Facebook (complete with pictures) went viral, drawing more than 178,000 “Likes” and 59,000 “Shares.” And “Comments” of all kinds were offered, ranging from admiration for the rat’s courage to outrage—and counter-response to the outrage—that a zoo would feed one defenseless live animal to another.

And, interestingly, the issue of reason and emotion in animals came up: “That mouse has a conscience.” “This really shows us that animals have emotions and feel the loss of another animal, especially a friend.”

Anthropomorphism, projecting human qualities onto other animals, isn’t new. In ancient Greece, the slave and storyteller Aesop used animal fables to teach moral lessons for children. His story of the tortoise and the hare are deep in the DNA of Western culture. At about the same time, some Buddhist Jataka tales also were employing animals in their narratives. And, since, this form of storytelling has endured. There have been Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. 

Even Jesus occasionally dabbled with a variation on the tradition, not with talking animals, but certainly with investing objects and animals with human attributes in fictional stories: the lost coin, the wheat and tares, the fig tree, the sheep and goats. Who hasn’t imagined being carried back to the sheepfold on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd?

In this century and the last, animators have depicted caricatured animals in all kinds of popular stories in film. Mickey Mouse is an international icon. All such representations of animals, however, have primarily explored human attributes, those qualities of life that separate humanity from the rest of nature.

But more recently, scientific theory has begun to ascribe more and more human qualities to the rest of the animal kingdom. Researchers are exploring what they consider to be evidences of emotion, moral behavior, and sense of awareness in the animals from which humanity is said to have evolved. Surely, they reason, these characteristics that have long been considered unique to humankind must have their roots, so to speak, in earlier species in the inexorable development through the ages of Homo sapiens.

Twenty years ago, for example, two philosophers, Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, published The Great Ape Project, a book calling for the same basic rights for gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos that are enjoyed—in most cultures—by human beings. Since that time, many countries have banned or limited the use of these animals in research. New Zealand and Spain have actually extended personhood to great apes.

The argument for such includes the documented fact that apes and humans share as much as 98.7 percent of their DNA. The great apes are described as having the ability to learn and use language, to use tools, to feel empathy. “They show emotions,” said Jane Goodall, “similar to those that we describe in ourselves as happiness, sadness, fear, despair.”2

“‘Great apes are thinking, self-aware beings with rich emotional lives,’ said Peter Singer. ‘If we regard human rights as something possessed by all human beings, no matter how limited their intellectual or emotional capacities may be, how can we deny similar rights to great apes?’”3

Certainly the treatment of animals that are lower on the phylogenetic scale should be governed by a recognition that they are all God’s creatures and that, as such, they are of inherent moral worth.   

But in a culture such as that of the 21st-century United States, it is tempting to respond satirically to the concept of “similar rights to great apes” and apply them to current trends and issues. How far should these rights be taken: to bear arms? to peaceful assembly? to citizenship? to the right to vote? to intermarriage? These, of course, are not at all helpful to measured discourse. Even the most fervid adherent of animal rights would presumably disavow such interpretations.

But this issue does relate predictably to current questions of what it means to be human: Where has our species come from, and where is it going? Any science worth its salt should be keenly interested in exploring such existential thought.

So is God.

Amazingly, He is so interested, in fact, in the origin and fate of humanity that He sent significant evidence of such for the closest of study. “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).4

Clearly Scripture encourages the study of the natural world as a material revelation of God’s infinite creativity and authority. And, further, it provides a full picture of God’s intention for the relationship between humankind and the rest of Creation. The biblical principle of stewardship forms the very core of humanity’s responsibility for all of God’s creation.

In a Perspective Digest article entitled “Does God Care About Oxen?” A. Rahel Schafer explores what is meant by the counsel: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4). She concludes that this verse “does not mean that humans may disregard the compassionate treatment of God’s creatures. God is not talking about animals just to show that He cares about humans. Both aspects must be kept in balance. . . . [In this verse] Scripture and analogy come together to inspire us to greater service toward all God’s creatures.”5

At this time in the story of the human race, however, it would be good also to look beyond the concerns for the rights of animals—and even for those of humankind. The Creator of all waived His rights and “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6, 7). He sacrificed everything to attack the serpent in our enclosure—and saved us.



1. Accessed September 9, 2013.

2. Accessed August 4, 2013.

3. Ibid.

4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this column are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.

5. Accessed August 5, 2013.