Giving human rights to animals – a topic that has been discussed for many years among those that fight for animal welfare, is now emerging into mainstream discussions. The basic principle is that all animals deserve the right to autonomy and it raises the challenging question – what right do we have to confine, isolate, and dictate the fate of animals?
This is a multifaceted topic with numerous tangents including end of life care, protection from their own naivety, how to interpret their desires, and how to factor in the damage we have already caused. When talking to people that work with or for animals, you hear an enormous gamut of viewpoints, many of which are steeped with perceptions based on our human limitations and others are fraught with self-serving justifications for our dominion. Humans have lots of opinions on this topic, but none of us have absolute answers. If we would have honored them from the outset, all would be well, but that ship sailed long ago. What is clear is that we can’t turn back from our constantly increasing awareness but how do we move forward to give them what they deserve, what they need, and what they want.
It is impossible to recreate nature, we cannot rebuild the families that were fractured decades ago, we cannot remove all of the injustices and the damage captive elephants have been subjected to, and we can’t just open the cages and set them free. But we can give them a dignified life. For sanctuary development we focus on two fundamental elements that we believe all, intelligent, emotionally complex beings deserve and need to live and thrive: respect and autonomy.
Respect is dynamic, it is mutual, and it is dependent on honesty, which is in turn dependent on open communication; one of many gifts that are born out of autonomy. Autonomy is based on trust that they ultimately know, as all beings do, what is best for themselves. Through the provision of space and the freedom to choose their own path, they learn to explore what it is that brings them comfort or creates anxiety. Our protective nature, partly based on empathy and still steeped with our self-determined right to control, wants to step in to remove all anxiety or fear. But doing this is not necessarily our right nor is it to their benefit. Through their explorations they learn to make decisions in advance to bring about their desired outcome, understanding that they can control their fate.
Sanctuary is still captivity, humans have done extensive damage to elephants’ psychological, emotional, and physical health and we are responsible to ensure their safety and well-being. Providing elephants with autonomy does not negate any of those realities, but it does require us to acknowledge where and when we have to protect and when we have to let them live their own lives. Their choices, and in some cases the negative repercussions of those choices, influence positive growth, a deeper understanding of the world around them, and most importantly a deeper understanding of self.
The more we understand ourselves, the better we are able to communicate our desires. As an animal with equal intelligence and self-awareness, there is no surprise that it is exactly the same with elephants. As a result of the way they have been treated and limited life experience, it is often difficult for them to find their voice. It takes time and it is imperative to respect the process. But when they learn that they can express themselves and that we’ll listen, the results are nothing short of remarkable.
Respect and autonomy: two simple elements that can change lives and reshape a future. Respect for the rights of others, creates the necessity to provide and honor their autonomy, through which they grow and we learn. The more we know, the more we respect and the more we promote increased autonomy. For those that ask if giving animals human rights is a slippery slope, my answer would be yes. It’s a slippery slope to a more compassionate and understanding world; more simply, it is called doing what is right.