Many of us have always felt, deep in our bones, that the rational arguments ("speciesism," academics call it) that allowed us to feel superior over our furrier, scalier counterparts were intellectually flimsy, emotionally false. The dog I grew up with, an irascible lab-mix named Boots, had an unflagging loyalty and flinty intelligence; a more recent orange tabby in my life named Lucas had a pure sweetness and compassion that no one would be able to convince me was in the least bit unevolved. And science, thankfully, has increasingly stepped up to prove us right. We know elephants exhibit self-awareness and empathy, orcas and other cetaceans are capable of great mourning, and Emory University's Gregory Berns took brain scans of dogs that suggest the completely startling and yet absolutely unsurprising news that canine brains appear to look and function much the way ours do. Who knows? Soon dogs might be able to tell us all about it.
This has fueled the burgeoning "nonhuman personhood" movement that's challenging the way we can legally treat animals, providing the argument for a ban on using dolphins or other cetaceans for entertainment in India, and fueling a buzzy case in New York that seeks enhanced rights on behalf of chimps. It's rapidly pushed us way beyond thinking of animals as things we raise for food or press into entertainment. They're intelligent, sentient beings whose cognitive, emotional and social capacities mirror our own. Those creatures big and small that have fed, frightened, entertained, comforted and awed us are no longer just them. Increasingly, they are us.