Where Science and Faith Converge
Average Joe's Corner

Chimps, Dogs, Humans: All People?

By Joe Aguirre - January 24, 2008

An update on a chimp whose caretakers sought "personhood" status for the animal brought to mind some thoughts and questions about how humans view other creatures, specifically our pets. While Christians in particular make a clear distinction between humans and animals, at times that line appears blurred by our behavior. In the case of the chimp named Matthew Hiasl Pan, an animal rights group had hoped an Austrian court would grant the chimp "personhood" status in order to save the animal from possible experimentation and exploitation, which he had been rescued from years earlier. The court denied personhood status. At this point I could envision a wary Christian response along the lines of "OK, they ruled properly. Animals are not humans and at least some aspect of our worldview has been validated." Maybe that's easier said than done.

I saw a Nature program on medical dogs not long ago that reminded me of how special dogs can be. The program featured an exasperated and frightened family trying to cope with a dangerously diabetic boy. The boy had suffered horrific seizures and the parents worried constantly. The mom learned on the Internet about dogs' special abilities and they got a puppy and trained it to sense blood sugar level changes in the boy. Bottom line: the dog is a lifesaver. Mom, Dad, and the boy can sleep at night because the dog never leaves the boy. If there's a problem the dog goes to the parents' bedroom and alerts them (well before it's critical). They can leisurely attend to the boy (shot of insulin) and everyone can go back to sleep with no fear of seizures. Service dogs, therapy dogs, cats that dial the operator when an owner goes down--we've all known special pets. I'm sure readers of this column can regale us with stories of their own uncanny, devoted, and affectionate companions. The point here is that on the one hand we might read a story about some animal rights people trying to help a chimp and wonder why they keep pushing the line. On the other hand, haven't we already crossed it in some ways? And is it good that we have done so? Do we treat our pets as people already? You can go out to eat, get a massage, or check into a hotel with your dog. We give our pets human names and some people put them in their wills. Is that a bad thing? In the case of the diabetic boy above, let's say the dog lives another 12 years and the (now) young man wants to have a full-on funeral with a minister, video memorials, eulogies, flowers, everything. Anyone gonna complain? You might say, "Yeah, but it's still a dog. We can love them like family but we still recognize they're animals."

Let's press it one step further. A few years ago a popular radio host in Southern California asked listeners to respond to a dilemma. He asked that if "your pet" and [name of a high-profile murder suspect on trial in Los Angeles] were both drowning and you could save one, who would it be? During the time I listened in the car, every caller said they would save their pet and let the man drown. What are your thoughts?

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