Byko: Animals have rights? Really?

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation threw a retirement party for 11 of its performing Asian elephants last week.

THE ELEPHANTS are gone from the Ringling Bros. circus. I am glad and amazed.

The orca shows at Sea World are next to go. Glad and amazed again.

These decisions are "game-changing," according to Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal advocacy group.

The elephants are also gone from the Philadelphia Zoo, glad again, although I know children miss the thrill of their gentle enormity.

Zoos elsewhere have or will shed their pachyderms.

I am amazed because they were pushed (in the right, humane direction) by a dedicated, noisy minority - the people with picket signs most of you ignored as you streamed into arenas or zoos to see the animals. Some of you ridiculed them as animal nuts.

You want to know something? The animal nuts are winning.

Even though they seemed to be few, those protesters were a vanguard. When the circus and the zoos and Sea World looked over the horizon, they saw a rising tide, especially among the young, of opposition to using animals, especially large mammals, for entertainment.

What's next - animal rights?

Over the 15 years she protested at the circus, Marianne Bessey noticed two things.

First, protests rarely got media attention then. They do now. Second, she saw attendance dwindle. So did the circus owners.

As director of Friends of Philly Zoo Elephants, Bessey is more responsible than any person for freeing elephants from the Philadelphia Zoo. The Friends are still active, she says, because the zoo still owns "longtime friends Kallie and Bette, and neither one was sent to a sanctuary." They are at separate locations, and Bessey wants them reunited - in a sanctuary.

Turning to a seagoing mammal, Bessey says the Blackfish documentary that aired on CNN several times - reporting on the suffering of captive orcas - played a major role in turning public opinion against Sea World, which is ending its shows featuring the beautiful black and white whales.

"I had people, even police at protests, coming up to me to say they didn't know how bad it was," says Bessey, who also is the founder of Animal ACTivists of Philly.

The goal for Bessey and other activists "is to have no animals in captivity exploited for human entertainment."

Does this mean you can't have a pet?

Of course not, scoffs Bessey, who lives with several rescue animals. Companion animals and humans "live in a relationship that is beneficial to each side," she says. It is not exploitation.

"No industry with animal exploitation built into the business model can expect anything but trouble and disaffection among its customer base," says H.S.U.S.'s Pacelle.

Rising sensitivity to animals - performing, companion, and those we eat - points to a gathering storm of change that is already underway. A growing number of Americans believe animals, like humans, have individual rights.

I can hear some of you laughing at me. That's OK. It is a foreign concept. So was the 40-hour work week, once.

Almost one-third of Americans (32 percent) believe animals should have the same rights as people, Gallup reported in May 2015. That was up from 25 percent in 2008, which is a stunning increase.

In the poll, rights was defined as being "free from harm and exploitation." That doesn't seem excessive.

The idea of animals having "rights" has been debated by animal activists since the '70s. It is a philosophical question that has profound consequences.

If animals have a right to life, it is wrong to kill them for sport or even for food. If animals have a right to freedom, it is wrong to put them in cages. If animals have a right to happiness, it is wrong to use them for medical experiments or to interfere with their natural lives.

It's not hard to get an "amen" when you talk about animal welfare, but less so for rights, which most of us think are reserved for human animals. You know we are just mammals with big brains, right?

I ask Pacelle where the mainstream H.S.U.S. stands.

"Ultimately, the cause of animal protection is about how we humans use our immense power over animals - in a merciful way, or in a destructive way," says Pacelle. "In that sense, the next frontier will be more about human responsibility than animal rights."

I get a different opinion from PETA - People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"Our founding belief is that animals are not ours to eat" or exploit in any way, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk tells me.

"If you are against needless violence, if you are against oppression, then you are for animal rights in the same way you are for human rights," says Newkirk, who sees a "human obligation" to treat animals humanely.

We chat on the phone for a few minutes, talking about elephants and whales and circus animals.

I can't let her go without asking if animal rights extend to voting.

"No," she says, "although they might do a better job."

215-854-5977 @StuBykofsky