About three months ago, Stephanie Strom of The New York Times broke the news that hotel heiress Leona Helmsley had given $5 billion to $8 billion in her bequest to her dog Trouble. As I wrote, the otherwise fascinating story failed to account for the origins of Helmsley’s misanthropy.
Now Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker has advanced the storyline — Helmsley’s bequest, far from being an anomaly, epitomizes nothing less than a legal revolution. This story is even more interesting than the Times‘. Yet it suffers from the same flaw.
In the story’s nutgraph, Toobin, a legal analyst, explains the significance of Helmsley’s last will and testament:
In fact, the clear motivation underlying Leona Helmsley’s will–her desire to pass her wealth on to dogs–is more common than might be expected. Pet-lovers (many of whom now prefer the term “animal companion”) have engineered a quiet revolution in the law to allow, in effect, nonhumans to inherit and spend money. It is becoming routine for dogs to receive cash and real estate in the form of trusts, and there is already at least one major foundation devoted to helping dogs. A network of lawyers and animal activists has orchestrated these changes, largely without opposition, in order to whittle down the legal distinctions between human beings and animals. They are already making plans for the Helmsleys’ billions.
Later, Toobin elaborates on the importance of the broader animal-rights movement: It has succeeded in extending some human rights to animals.
The legal movement, which largely focussed on pets, was, of course, symbiotically aligned with the broader animal-rights movement, which also grew in the nineteen-nineties. But the theme remained the same–to extend the rights of humans to animals. In a country where most people eat meat, many hunt, and most others give little thought to the legal rights of their pets, the complexities of such a change are considerable. Even pro-animal-rights scholars, like Peter Singer, a professor at Princeton, recognize the difficulties. As Singer said at a recent conference in New York City, “We’re talking about beings as different as chimpanzees, pigs, chickens, fish, oysters, and others, and you must recognize those differences.” For the moment, the goals of the movement are modest, and largely limited to domestic animals.
“What the law is doing is catching up with the idea that people don’t consider their pets property, in the way a car or a chair is,” Hoffman told me. “I am not pumping for my cats to be able to vote for McCain or Obama. I’m not saying they could visit me at the hospital, though that’s probably a pretty good idea. The right category for pets is closer to children, who can’t vote, and can’t own property, but you can’t inflict pain on them, either. The law is catching up with societal beliefs.”
Toobin’s story also has other interesting details — the founder of People Soft is giving millions to his dogs; Helmsley may not be able to be buried with her dog because the law precludes the possibility; the effort by animal-rights activists to use bequests not to fund a dog’s lifestyle but to prevent stray animals from being killed in pounds. These are worth reading in full.
At the end of the story, Toobin attempts to find a larger significance in not only Helmsley’s gift but the broader animals-deserve-human rights movement:
Hoffman’s enthusiasm obscures the fundamental moral question about how Helmsley hoped to dispose of her fortune. The way Leona altered her mission statement places the issue in especially stark terms. Version one proposed helping dogs and ailing poor children; version two–the final version–cut out the children and gave everything to the dogs. Is there any justification for such a calculation? Or does Helmsley’s change, along with the broader vogue for pet bequests, reflect a decadent moment in our history? …
“When you see a gift like Leona’s, it’s individualism carried to iconography,” Gregorian went on. “The whole idea that individuals can do whatever they want is part of the American psyche. It’s left to individual decision-making. That you can give to this sector of society, which is animals, as opposed to the other sector, which is human beings, tells you something about her and about the times in which we live.”
Like the Times‘ story, this summary cried out for a religious angle. Both are about the rise of a certain kind of misanthropy. Is this related to a breakdown in traditional religious belief? What do non-traditional religions think about extending some human rights to animals?
Also, Gregorian’s quote deserves more scrutiny. While America has long been an individualistic country, it has not considered some animals to be humans deserving of legal rights. Is the individualism carried to iconography related to the dictatorship of relativism that Pope Benedict XVI decried?
In any event, I think that regular GR commenter Stephen A.’s reply to my original post applied equally to this story:
the problem is (and the point this entire blog makes, and is here to make) is that religion is often ignored completely in stories that would clearly benefit from a religious angle, like this one. It would certainly add texture to this story about Helmsley, and how she became the person she was.