So if human beings are endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, what are the rest of the animals on earth endowed with? The right to be wild and free? The right to be killed and eaten? Or could it possibly be that some other animals are entitled to the same rights as human beings?

Just before Christmas, the Nonhuman Rights Project filed suit on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York State, arguing that the apes should be regarded as “legal persons” and should be released from captivity on writs of habeas corpus and relocated to wildlife sanctuaries. Not surprisingly, the judges of the New York Appellate Division did not accept the argument that “chimpanzees are autonomous things who are self-aware, self-conscious, who can self determine and who choose the way in which they live their lives.”

In the United States of America, nonhuman entities such as corporations are considered legal persons with all attendant rights thereof, but living, breathing, thinking, sensing, feeling higher primates are not.

As we evolve as human beings and as a culture in our understanding of what it means to be alive on this planet, we continually expand the sphere of human rights. But we are not yet enlightened enough to regard primates who are 98 percent human as equals.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not there yet either. I eat meat and wear leather belts and shoes. I have no sympathy for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals when they show up in Maine to protest how lobsters are cooked. (I put them in cold water and slowly boil them on the theory that they just go to sleep in a warm bath.) But I do applaud the Nonhuman Rights Project for championing the rights of chimpanzees.

We all draw the line on what is acceptable in different places. I know people who only eat meat if they know where the animal came from and how it was raised. Some people are vegan, some vegetarian, some will eat fish but not red meat, most of us are bloody omnivores. The spectrum of sensitivity to other species runs from people who have no respect whatsoever for other living things, to people such as Jain monks and nuns who eat only dropped fruit and wear surgical masks to keep from breathing in insects.

The reason I applaud the Nonhuman Rights Project is the same reason I approve of groups such as Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace that put themselves out there to defend wildlife. We need people out front showing us the way, people willing to take risks to protect animals and raise our collective consciousness. Who, at this point in human history, can watch scenes of whaling on the Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” series, or the slaughter of dolphins in the documentary film “The Cove,” without wondering when the Japanese are going to realize what pariahs they are?

That said, I am guilty of taking my grandchildren to the zoo, which is ultimately little more than an animal prison. I would not, however, be so crass as to take a child to SeaWorld. In the evolution of my own animal rights consciousness, I tend to view zoos as somewhat benign, but after watching the film “Blackfish,” I now regard aquariums like SeaWorld as unethical and indefensible, capturing and dominating marine animals in order to amuse stupid tourists and make big bucks. The fact that captive killer whales sometimes turn on their captors is entirely predictable and understandable.

I assume, if I keep expanding my animal consciousness, I will eventually condemn zoos as well. I mean what the heck are elephants and giraffes doing in Providence anyway? And while I am not opposed to hunting, it does appear that that even in a rural state with a long hunting heritage that killing animals just for fun is on the decline.

My point here is not to hold myself up as a paragon of animal rights virtue. I am not. I may buy cage-free eggs, but then I eat them with factory-farmed bacon. But it wouldn’t hurt any of us to consider where we find ourselves on the reverence-for-life spectrum, somewhere between mindless slaughter and compassionate sainthood. As we are still struggling as a culture to understand and overcome our history of white male heterosexual domination, however, it’s likely to be some time before we seriously start addressing our sins as a species.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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