Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Defining Personhood
distributed 9/19/03 - ©2003

"What is a person?" is not a question that I ponder frequently. The content of two meetings, though, have hit me with contrasting and challenging answers.

In July, I attended a fascinating conference on prairie dogs -- a distinctive rodent that lives in colonies across the plains of the western US. Most of the folk who were there are avowed prairie dog lovers -- biologists and activists who are working hard to protect the dwindling populations of these once abundant animals.

There are, of course, others out here in the West who are not so fond of P-dogs. Ranchers and land developers think of them as "varmints." Until recently, the standard government policy across the region was to exterminate them.

My philosophical musing began when one of the presenters referred to prairie dogs as "those little people." In a large room swarming with passionate animal rights activists, nobody else had pushed the language that far. Other terms were common -- critters, creatures, animals and "little guys" -- but "people?" That felt like we'd jumped into a whole different territory of identity and rights.

I didn't squawk, or faint, or do anything else unseemly about that surprising wording. I may have rolled my eyes a bit, and I jotted a comment about it in my notes.

At lunch, though, my tidy categories of "people" and "not people" took a real beating.

The lunch presentation was given by a biologist from Northern Arizona University on the topic of prairie dog language. Because prairie dog towns have large numbers of individuals and a fairly limited set of social behaviors, their calls are relatively easy to study. It turns out that there is a lot of content there for the researchers.

Scientists have known for some time that prairie dogs have several different "alarm calls." They bark out a different sort of warning for a coyote than they do for a hawk.

New technologies have allowed the researchers to discover that prairie dog language has lots of different "words." An approaching coyote, for example, elicits a different call than a domestic dog -- a remarkably specific distinction. And when recordings of the various calls are played back, the members of a colony will respond appropriately -- dive into the burrow when warned of a hawk; head to the burrow and look around for a coyote warning; and stand up for a good look on word of a human. There are other words, too, that refer to non-threatening animals like cattle and antelope, so the message is not just for "alarms" and warnings.

That's pretty sophisticated. But in addition to these "nouns," the prairie dogs have "adjectives" that describe the color and size of the thing being described. And there are verb-like words that describe the speed of travel of predators. A big, dark-colored dog that is trotting is described differently than a small, light-colored dog that is walking.

It was an absolutely astounding presentation. I'd heard of apes that have learned sign language, and I know something about the complex vocalization of dolphins. But I had never imagined that those "varmints" would have such a rich form of communication.

The researcher's presentation notes say that prairie dogs "are sentient beings, and not mindless vermin to be exterminated for the sake of convenience or human whim." I left the meeting feeling far less certain about my categories.

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This week, I attended a meeting at a local church. The congregation is gathering a study group to look closely at a specific issue of corporations in the US.

A strange series of events in US legal history has led to the interpretation that, in the eyes of the law, a corporation is a "person." A corporation may own property, participate in political debate (and, of course, political funding). Corporations claim the legal rights due to any human in the US, such as freedom of speech and privacy.

In a recent case -- settled out of court just last week -- the Nike Corporation was charged with blatant lies in some of its advertising. The company never denied that its public statements were intentionally false. They did claim in their court filings that, as a "person" with free speech rights, they didn't have to tell the truth.

Members of the church are looking at how to join in a growing movement to challenge the strange legal status of "corporate personhood."

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It is certainly a strange thing.

I cringed when I heard someone refer to prairie dogs as "people." Yet they are sentient living beings who live in highly sociable colonies, participate in a rich set of ecological relationships with dozens of other species, and have a sophisticated language.

On the other hand, our society has become quite used to speaking of, and treating, corporations as "people." These legal constructions have no bodies, are never born and never die. They have no ability to think, act or communicate on their own.

Our Judeo-Christian faith calls on us to love our neighbor. If the neighborly, and legal, status of "person" is going to be extended beyond the human family, it seems to me that prairie dogs are an easier stretch than corporations.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

The following links provide more details on some of the references in this article.

The July conference was sponsored by the Prairie Dog Coalition. The luncheon speaker was Dr. Con Slobodchikoff. Another prairie dog site has a brief article on his research and its implications.

The Common Dream website has an article on the Nike case: Now Corporations Claim "The Right To Lie". More extensive information on corporate personhood can be found at

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