A Pig Farmer’s Thoughts On “Non-Human Personhood”

Photo: Eukalyptus

Photo: Eukalyptus

About a month ago, my mother sent me a link to an article spreading the news that the government of India had declared cetaceans "non-human persons," and had granted them the fundamental rights to "life and liberty," the pressing practical implications of which were that cetaceans, including bottle nose dolphins and orcas (killer whales), could no longer be captured and/or held captive and made to perform in dolphin water parks, which, as disposable income in India has increased over the past years, have been proliferating as a popular form of family entertainment.

My mother sent me the link in an email, with no note, just the subject line "Dolphins gain unprecedented protection in India" and the link in the body of the message. When I clicked on the link, I expected to read about some sort of seemingly important half measure intended to assuage animal rights activists.Needless to say I was shocked when I read the first sentence, "India has officially recognized dolphins as non-human persons, whose rights to life and liberty must be respected." The article stated further that "the government said research had clearly established cetaceans are highly intelligent and sensitive, and that dolphins ‘should be seen as ‘non-human persons' and as such should have their own specific rights.'" The results of the research mentioned led scientists and ethicists to draft and sign a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans three years ago in Helsinki, Finland. The research of LoriMarino, noted in the article as a leading marine scientist, "has shown that dolphins have a level of self-awareness similar to that of human beings. Dolphins can recognize their own reflection, use tools and understand abstract concepts.They develop unique signature whistles allowing friends and family members to recognize them, similar to the way human beings use names." The article stated further that "Puja Mitra from the Federation of Indian Animal ProtectionOrganizations (FIAPO) [and] a leading voice in the Indian movement to end dolphin captivity," said, "this opens up a whole new discourse of ethics in the animal protection movement in India." That is an understatement, to say the least.

In my wanderings through cyberspace, especially social media, for the past few years, I have been encountering the phrase "non-human persons" with increasing frequency, but regardless of that frequency, it has almost always been used by people on the extreme margins of the discourse. Now, however, the government of a sovereign nation has not only used the phrase, but has encoded it into law, effectively drawing non-human personhood not only into the mainstream discourse, but into the juridical fold. What Mitra understated was the geo-political/juridical and geo-cultural reach of this new discourse. The concept of non-human personhood, something that was, as far as the mainstream discourse was concerned, merely a marginal, extremist idea, has been transmuted. Non-human personhood is no longer merely an idea. Non-human persons exist, in corporeal form, and carry with them encoded, defensible rights.

Of course, that non-human persons exist is not news to those invested in the marginal discourse. They have known it and behaved accordingly in their dealings with non-human persons for years. Today, however, all people,everywhere in the world, governments included, must acknowledge the presence of non-human persons among us, even if only in an effort to refute their existence[an effort to refute something in many ways reifies that thing] or an attempt to belittle them, by, for example, perhaps acknowledging non-human personhood,but declaring that that does not require that we grant them rights, which are,and will forever be, reserved for human persons.

As I read the article, I immediately, I suspect as my mother knew I would,started thinking about my farm, specifically the pigs. I currently raise about 500 pigs on pasture (during the growing season) per year, taking groups of five to ten or more to the slaughterhouse once every week. I do this while striving to meet the highest livestock animal welfare standards that are out there, those of the Animal Welfare Approved program (note: I have not attempted to have my farm AWA certified). I believe I have a responsibility to treat the animals I raise for slaughter with care and respect for their interests not as a reflection of my beliefs about the personhood status of the animals, but rather out of a self-reflexive (and self-centered) set of ideas about how I think, ethically-speaking, people should treat "lesser" species,especially those that are clearly complexly and intricately sentient and have the capacity for emotional and psychological suffering.

Reading the article, however, I couldn't help but draw parallels between cetaceans and pigs, bringing the personhood status of the pigs to the forefront of my ethical considerations for the first time. As noted above, the Indian government's statement declared that cetaceans are "highly intelligent and sensitive." Well,so are pigs. While the parallels are not always so strong, for example, pigs do not, as far as my own decade of anecdotal experience with them is concerned,meet Lori Marino's "level of self-awareness similar to that of human beings,"there are, nevertheless, weak parallels strong enough to be easily apparent.Pigs have demonstrated to me that they are highly social animals with complex psychological needs and strong interests. They have also shown that they are highly empathic (they are also very cruel -- but that makes them seem even more like persons [human persons, at that], doesn't it?).

They might not have "unique signature whistles" that function in many ways like names, but they do have a complicated set of sounds that express a range of emotions and experiences (click here to see and hear some of my pigs expressing dissatisfaction/unhappiness). I am by no means making the argument that pigs have anything that could remotely be considered a language, but I am arguing that they communicate important, though simple, information to each other using a shared set of sounds and body language. Pigs do not use tools,but they are, in my experience, rudimentary problem solvers. For example, I grow corn for the pigs, but rather than mechanically harvest the corn and bring it to the pigs (expensive), I put an electric fence around the cornfield and bring the pigs to the corn (cheap). The pigs quickly solve their way through the problem of not being able to reach the ears of corn, which are high up on the plant. They knock the plants over using various techniques. And, showing, I believe, that they have intelligence and not merely instinct, some pigs are better problem solvers than others.

Do gregariousness, psychological needs, interests, the capacity for communicating emotional states and experiences, empathy (and cruelty), and problem solving put pigs in the same category as cetaceans? Are pigs non-human persons? Where does animal life end and personhood begin?

Now that non-human persons are among us, now that we have entered this"whole new discourse of ethics," those are the questions we must ask. This new discourse should not be only about the obvious candidates for non-human personhood -- cetaceans, elephants, and great apes. We must also look closely at the livestock animals we raise to be slaughtered so that we can consume their flesh. As we delve deeper into this new discourse and our understanding of non-human personhood is refined, and likely broadened, we might very well come to believe that pigs, and perhaps other livestock, are non-human persons, too.