The status of animals is not an innate constant such as eye color or build, but a social-cultural characteristic that can be awarded or taken away. As a cultural group, we decide how high this status is. It's also a gradual concept. A higher or lower status can be awarded, contrary to the concept of "intrinsic value" that may or may not be recognized in animals. It's impossible to say about an animal that it has a little intrinsic (or self) value. People, animals and objects can gradually be awarded more or less status. At the top of these gradations there is sometimes a transition. When a musician, a horse or an old house gradually grow in status, it may be that after a certain "threshold value" they gain an untouchable super status: rock stars, dressage horses, monumental buildings. This top status receives a lot of attention and sometimes veils the gradual character of the concept of status. Thirdly, status is a relative concept. I award a different status to the teacher of my 7-year-old son than my son does himself.
Underneath are text fragments from the speech by Tjard de Cock Buning, given on 1st April 2000, on his acceptance of the office of extraordinary Professor Animal Testing Issues at the Faculty of Animal Medicine of the Utrecht University.
Researchers award a lower status to a laboratory rabbit than other people
do to their pet rabbits. A sociologist sees behavior changes
when people of different status meet. The behavioral scientist
sees status differences in social animals such as people
and wolves, which incite submissive or dominant behavior.
Meeting people of the same status, however, does not lead
to behavioral changes, we act as we normally do.
What determines this dynamic status?
An animal's status is determined by four variables:
a historical/cultural component, the personal bond,
knowledge about the animal and the abundance of the
P for personal bond
K for Knowledge
There are also animals to which we do not ascribe a
historical status and with which we do not have a bond
through direct experience. But it's remarkable that
having knowledge about the lives of certain animals
can help them gain a higher status. Stephen R. Kellert
did research in the seventies to find out whether systematically
low-scoring animal species could gain more status by
introducing e.g. spiders to children in grade schools
during their Natural History lessons. It turned out
to be possible to increase an animal's status through
There's an interesting psychological phenomenon that also determines the dynamic of an animal's status. As soon as we hear that there are only a few specimens of a certain type of animal left, this species' status skyrockets. A variation on this phenomenon appears with the status difference between originals and copies. Copies of masterpieces in art are awarded a lower status. Their numbers appear to be an important variable for status.
Endangered species may count on a higher status than those who are not endangered. Animals that have large litters several times a year, such as mice and rats, are marked as pests. They are outlaws, and hunting them seems to hardly affect their species. This is completely different with animals that only bear a single young when they reach a late age (lions, elephants, orang-utangs, whales). The death of a single parent or young can endanger the entire group. The WWF is very active for these vulnerable animals.
What does this dynamic mean for the future?
We have entered the age of information technology. The knowledge scientists and biologists are collecting about animals is growing every day. This knowledge is now being spread to citizens and students at a much higher speed than twenty years ago, thanks to popular science magazines (New Scientist, Nature and Technology) and scientific sections of newspapers, and of course Discovery Channel and the Internet. If there are any animals left about which no fascinating reports on their lives have been written, this will surely come in the next fifty years. This trend shows us that cumulative knowledge will increase the status of all animals. Fifty years ago it was possible to freely use DDT to fight malaria in Africa. Nowadays this is a classic example of simplistic thinking. Of course, DDT kills mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite. But now we know so much about the network in which parasite, mosquito, man, resistance and immune systems modulate each other, that a reasoning of linear cause and effect is deemed outmoded and simplistic. However, the philosophical consequences of the network approach are that the status of the smallest animals is elevated to an essential link in the survival of the known top scorers in the animal kingdom. Think about the role of krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) in the polar seas that are essential to the survival of whales.
If there were something I would stake my life on, it would be the certainty that in the next fifty years Holland and Europe will be urbanized even further. What is left of nature will be shifted more and more to national park management. The question is whether even Africa and South-America will still have wild areas. The movements of larger animals will be monitored from satellites, and Wild Life Rangers will guard ecological networks locally. There will be no question of wild animals. Just imagine. There will be a time when even wild animals will be comfortable with people driving, walking and videotaping around them. The category of "wild" animals will cease to exist. We will only be able to speak in a virtual sense about animals that, if we hadn't noticed and protected them, would have had the potential to become truly wild animals. But no animal will live that way. All animals are doomed to become "kept animals". The concept "kept animal" plays a part in judicial philosophy. The Flora & Fauna Law contains rules for handling wild plants and animals. The Health and Welfare Law for Animals contains rules for our handling of all kept animals. The former legislation will become increasingly empty in the coming years. Even migrating sandpipers in a borderless Europe will be regarded as protected animals that fly from reservation to reservation along biological main structures. Already, ornithologists have a bond with recaptured birds they ringed the previous year as "wild birds". The thought that people in other countries may shoot down "their" birds during their migration and eat them makes their blood boil. In this sense, the bond between an ornithologist and his ringed birds leads to the same emotions you would be experiencing when some brute poisons your pet. Maybe you want to interject that there is a difference between a personal bond with a pet and a general feeling of responsibility for the survival of animals. Morally, this difference does not exist. Morally, I would be outraged in both cases, because this bond, in the sense of 'you mean something to me in my life (and vice versa)', has been brutally trodden on by an unknown person. In neither case is it a question of a bird dying in France (or a cat in Amsterdam). No, it's my bird and my cat dying. In future, all animals will be my-animals for everybody.
Another indisputable prediction for this century is that the list of endangered species will only get longer. This will eventually also lead to all animals gaining a higher status.
Dear listeners, in view of the demographic developments
it is inevitable that the status of animals will keep
increasing in the coming years, all the more because
our knowledge of animals and their function in ecological
networks keeps growing. At the same time, biodiversity
and biomass of animals will constantly decrease. The
remaining animals will be placed under the management
of people, so humanity will integrally take up the function
of animal protector in the coming century.
I do foresee
two developments that will stop the current growth in
the use of test animals. In the coming years, attention
for the refinement of test installations in relation to
tour de forces in genetic modification will lead to completely
new types of test animals and installations. In most cases
of biomedical testing the animals should hardly have to
notice that they are being tested on. At a subtle detection
level, small changes in the genome of mice will supply
a lot of information about the non-pathological dynamics
of physiological processes. The extreme pathology we know
now in classic animal testing will no longer be as necessary,
because our knowledge of mechanisms at a molecular level
will increase. Research questions will increasingly be
asked at that level, and this will remove the need for
painful symptoms as a necessary end. Eventually, it's
conceivable that animal testing will become redundant
because molecular diagnoses, direct therapy and monitoring
inside patients themselves will become possible. The risk
of suffering, against which vulnerable test subjects are
protected by the Nuremberg code and the Declaration of
Helsinki, will be greatly reduced. In this sense I would
like to start a dialogue between the medical ethical committees
and the animal experiment committees about the real added
value and risks of animal and human testing in the transition
to clinical trials. Animals and patients can benefit when the unnecessary parts of animal testing are skipped.