Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
This book is available for free download.
Archive.org audiobook: http://www.archive.org/download/LittleFuzzy/LittleFuzzy_64kb_mp3.zip
Gutenberg etext: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/18137/18137.zip
This story takes place on a planet in another star system which was settled by humans only about 25 years ago. A company has a Type 3 license from the interstellar government to economically develop the planet. This kind of license is for planets with no native intelligent species.
One day, a prospector (Jake) returns home after a day of work and finds the door open. In the bathtub he discovers a small, furry and more-or-less humanoid creature ("Little Fuzzy"). It is friendly and the two get along so well that after a few days Little Fuzzy goes out and brings his family to live with Jake.
Little Fuzzy and his family make tools they use for a number of purposes, as well as showing other signs they may be a "sapient species". They also make noises, but it is unclear if they have a language. They are not known to use fire. Are they relatively smart animals or are they "people"?
The company has a considerable vested interest in having the planet continue to be classified as having no native intelligence. Management quickly arranges to put people it can depend on to take the company’s side to “study” the question of whether the “fuzzies” are sapient. Or, since they already “know” the fuzzies aren’t, to find ways to prove it.
When a company man “studying” fuzzies on Jake’s property kills a fuzzy, Jake injures that company man and kills another company man who pulls a gun on Jake. The company has Jake charged with murder. Jake responds by charging the company man with murder (of the fuzzy). This sends the issue of whether the fuzzies are sapient to the courts. Meanwhile, the company hatches other schemes. For instance, it initiates a claim that a fuzzy has attacked a girl. It hopes the ensuing hysteria will lead to the extermination of the fuzzies.
Also around this time the interstellar “navy” (the nearest representatives of the interstellar government) also begins to get involved…
Piper writes this as a relatively light book. It raises questions, but doesn’t present them in an intensely serious way. As a matter of fact, the question of whether the fuzzies are sapient is presented to predispose the reader to think they are. Therefore, the reader isn’t forced to puzzle over the status of the fuzzies. As a result, some reader may not wonder too much about the general issue. Aside from raising the sapience question, the book would probably not be that memorable, although it can be entertaining.
The book raises interesting questions about the borderline between "animals" and "people" - as well as how one would determine this. One might also end up asking questions from the opposite direction. How intelligent are human beings who are able to convince themselves of beliefs that are convenient, but contrary to the evidence?
In the book, it's not just a scientific or philosophical question, but a legal one. And legal history shows that can be a very different matter. For instance, 150 years ago in the US, a slave owner could do practically anything to a slave, as if they weren't human. Yet, if the slave owner had sex with one of his slaves, the law did not view it as sex with a farm animal. So even with a human whether the law treats one as a "person" is not always clear.
This Archive.org audiobook is human read - not computer generated. The reading is generally good, but the reader does stumble over some words and those parts have not been re-recorded to make the book flow smoothly. Those who demand reading by professional actors and a polished recording may not be satisfied. Of course, this version is a free download, not an expensive commercial version.