That’s Mr. Fido To You (Update)

But if a corporation is a “person,” why not an animal?  That seems to be a common fallback question by those who either support the idea, or just hate Citizens United enough to use it whenever possible.  But its leading proponent, Gary Wise, is on a mission:

Mr. Wise began developing his animal personhood strategy after struggling with ineffective welfare laws and regulations that fail to keep animals out of abusive environments. Unlike welfare statutes, legal personhood would give some animals irrevocable protections that recognize their critical needs to live in the wild and to not be owned or abused.

Before you knee-jerk shout, “are you kidding me,” Wise has not only pursued this course for more than 30 years and taught it at Harvard, but he’s now got a case pending in New York:

His team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), selected as its first plaintiffs four chimps living in New York: Tommy, Kiko, Hercules and Leo. He chose these animals in large part because New York’s common laws are favorable to habeas corpus lawsuits, and because there are great ape sanctuaries that could accommodate them.

This fall, the cases will be likely to go to New York’s intermediate appellate courts. If Mr. Wise wins, he will have successfully broken down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. His plaintiffs, the four chimps, will be deemed legal persons and relocated to outdoor sanctuaries around the United States.

And if you think this cause won’t muster support, think again. The causes of animal rights, animal law and concerns about our treatment of animals (remember the animal abuse registry laws) have significant support.

What does all this mean?  That’s the problem. It’s unclear that any proponents really have a clue what the ramifications might be if they got their way.  While the analogy to corporations is poor and unavailing, it appears that the argument isn’t that animals are people, but “persons.” It appears this means that we’re allowed to be different species, but by being persons, animals have rights.

What rights?  Well, apparently the right to live as they should, or at least as Gary Wise believes they should.  The right to not be abused. The right to self-determination?

The problem is that if an animal isn’t property, but has rights, then does it have all the same rights as other “persons”?  All of them? Some of them? The ones that aren’t as ridiculous as others?

Is eating meat out of the question? After all, we murder animals for food. If they have rights, would that include the right not to be murdered? And kidnapped, and held as slaves in our homes, where we feed them and love them?  Does your terrier really want to be on a leash? And if the dog is a person, isn’t it his job to clean up his own poop?  Certainly, a human can’t be liable for failure to scoop the poop of another person.

After he started his career as a criminal defense lawyer, he was inspired by Peter Singer’s book “Animal Liberation” to dedicate himself to justice for animals. He helped pioneer the study of animal rights law in the 1980s.

Criminal defense lawyers tend to gain a certain respect for rights, and apparently that can include the rights of animals.  Few people would argue that an animal doesn’t have a right to not be beaten and abused. Fewer still would take issue with this, as abusing animals is just a sick, awful thing to do. But that we choose to treat living things kindly because that’s our nature is a far cry from imbuing them with the bundle of rights that our Constitution provides to persons.

No doubt, there are a million permutations of questions of what this could possibly mean. Is there a principled way to distinguish which “rights” might be appropriate for an animal and which are just totally nuts?  And does this mean all animals get rights? Are some pigs more equal than others?  And don’t bacteria have feelings too? Well, maybe not, but they’re certainly living until we wipe them away with an anti-bacterial cloth.

Like anti-bullying laws, anti-revenge porn laws, victims rights laws, to argue against such notions is decried as being in favor of the wrong they seek to stop. But reasonable people realize that’s not the point or the truth. Wise’s appeal is largely emotional, what about the poor animals, and questioning his mission is not the same as being callous toward them.

It’s more a problem of what does it mean, where would it end, what are the unintended consequences of even cracking the surface of such a concept.  While it’s unclear, it seems that it can’t be good, and that it can prove very bad for a species of carnivores, leather-wearers and pet-lovers.

I would never kick a cat. I would, however, take another helping of bacon. This may not be principled and consistent, but that’s also a pretty human way to deal with such things.

Update:  In People ex rel. Nonhuman Rights Project, Inc. v. Lavery  (Dec. 4, 2014), the Appellate Division, Third Department, held that chimps are not persons.

[U]nlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights — such as the fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus — that have been afforded
to human beings.

It’s as good a reason to distinguish the two as any, and certainly better than quantity of body hair.  That said, don’t get too smug about it.

[Footnote, moved from earlier:] To be sure, some humans are less able to bear legal duties or responsibilities than others.

The court didn’t exactly says so, but you know they meant that chimps put some to shame.

11 comments on “That’s Mr. Fido To You (Update)

  1. Brett Middleton

    Reminds me of a piece by Joe Patrouch published in Analog magazine in Nov. 1977 entitled “Legal Rights for Germs?” Science fictioneers have been discussing the problems of extending personhood to non-humans (aliens, robots, animals) for 70 years or more. Perhaps Mr. Wise should scan the literature for ideas.

    It seems to me that rights, by their nature, are reciprocal things that we grant to each other in order to form a society. Is an animal able to reciprocate? If I grant that a lion has a right to life, will he acknowledge that I have the same? If not, then the lion has rights but suddenly I do not, at least with respect to lions. I can be charged with murdering a lion, but a lion can’t be charged with murdering me. Likewise, if all animals have a right to life, can a lion be charged with murder for killing a zebra?

    I have a problem with animals being regarded as simple “property” in the same sense as a table, a wrench, or any other inanimate object that I can use, abuse, or destroy at will. But giving them “rights” is at least equally problematic.

    1. Jonathan Edelstein

      In medieval times, animals often were tried for murdering humans or for other crimes, and they got the whole panoply of medieval due process (which, given the legalistic attitude of the times, was more than you’d think). Maybe we can go back to that. People v. Fido, or maybe it would be Persons v. Fido…

      1. Brett Middleton

        I suppose medieval attorneys had to take an exam to get admitted to the barn. In modern times I think we would have a problem in ascribing enough moral agency to an animal to make it culpable. I’m sure any good CDL would be ready with a diminished capacity argument.

      1. Brett Middleton

        That one occurred to me, but it was a near disaster for the Fuzzies, who didn’t appear to fit the rule. And it doesn’t solve the problem for Fido and other lower forms.

        Mr. Maupin’s link was interesting, though I’m not very fond of consequentialist approaches. Our bloodmouth carnist does try to work from a basis of reciprocal relationships, but his thinking breaks down a bit when you consider where euthanasia might fit the scheme, and breaks down more than a bit when it comes to the question of cruelty. I would certainly disagree with his contention that there is no reciprocal trust relationship when it comes to livestock, speaking as an animal scientist who has spent his career in the industry. I don’t think you’d find many stockmen who would agree with him, either.

  2. Fubar

    Is there a principled way to distinguish which “rights” might be appropriate for an animal and which are just totally nuts? …

    I would never kick a cat. I would, however, take another helping of bacon. …

    I, for one, draw the line at permitting a cat who steals bacon from your breakfast plate, but upon confrontation drops it at your feet partially chewed, to argue accession when you sue him for tortious conversion.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    This unworthy commenter, in a clear and unambiguous violation of the plainly written rules, hereby presents a possibly relevant, possibly humorous link, for our esteemed host to do with as he/she/it sees fit:

    [Ed. Note: This time. Don’t get used to it.]

  4. Bruce Coulson

    But wouldn’t having to provide legal representation for animals solve the problem of unemployed attorneys? ‘Pet Law’ could be huge! People already spend huge amounts of money on their pets, so a little extra for legal fees would hardly be noticeable, and could be a boon for your profession.

    1. SHG Post author

      This would be funny if it wasn’t for the fact that some lawyer, somewhere, is thinking this for real.

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