There is a campaign underway in Vienna, Austria to declare Hiasl, a 26-year-old male chimpanzee, a “person,” with various accompanying legal rights. Hiasl’s cause is being championed by a group of animal rights activists. They are not insisting that he be given, for example, the right to vote, but they do want him protected by some basic rights to life–no torture, no enslavement, and the like. The Austrian animal shelter where Hiasl has lived for several decades has been closed, and his supporters want to make sure that he is not simply sent to join the homeless, or worse, to be killed.
I sympathize with Hiasl’s defenders. But I also worry about the larger trend we can see at work here. As an opponent of abortion-on-demand, I am concerned about a pattern in contemporary culture where we are downgrading human life, while at the same time upgrading the value of non-human animal life.
From a Christian perspective, not all created life is of equal value. People are more important than animals in God’s eyes. Human beings are the crowning achievement of creation. If that sounds like “species imperialism,” or a “hierarchical view of reality”–well, so be it. When we degrade human life–whether the life of the child not yet born or of the aging Alzheimer’s patient or of the young woman sold into sexual slavery–we violate the Creator’s purposes.
But we must also respect animal life. To be sure, we must oppose the tendency these days towards species-egalitarianism. Chimpanzees are not my siblings. They are not proper candidates for “human rights.” But neither are they devoid of a kind of created dignity. God created each species “after its own kind.” We need to think about what that means. In that regard, Hiasl’s defenders have a good point. Given the present legal situation, the right to life is restricted to humans. Hiasl could be eliminated without any legal penalities.
If someone kills Hiasl, I would be reluctant to label the killer a “murderer.” But I would not refrain from calling the person a sinner. We need a better theology of animal life–one that makes theological sense of the sins committed against the non-human creation.