My opinion since moving to Washington, DC – where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a law school graduate – is the world has enough lawyers. However, there are times when lawyers are welcome because they’re very necessary. Today there’s an animal rights initiative just getting legs and its success or failure will likely hinge on whoever has the most – and best – lawyers. I’m talking about the legal concept of animal “personhood.” Stick with me; this may be esoteric and sound comical, but the threat is nevertheless very real.
“Personhood” under law recognizes only a natural person or “legal personality” has rights, protections, privileges, responsibilities, and legal liability. “Personhood,” according to one legal journal, “continues to be a topic of international debate, and has been questioned during the abolition of slavery and the fight for women’s rights, in debates about abortion, fetal rights and reproductive rights (and) in animal rights activism…” (my emphasis).
In the 1980s-90s, we beat back an aggressive campaign by PETA and other animal rights groups to achieve “standing” in federal courts to sue on behalf of animals those who transgressed the animal rights philosophy, e.g. biomedical researchers, farmers and ranchers, zoos, rodeos and other legitimate users of animals. We watched class action suits filed on behalf of unnamed millions of consumers and lots of animals dismissed because the wannabe plaintiffs had no standing.
In the early 2000s, animal rights and real world lawyers sought to change companion animals’ legal status from property owned by someone to animals as semi-persons who enjoy not an owner but a “guardian.” Some California towns actually enshrined part of this philosophy in local law. The push was to allow owners who brought suit in cases of veterinary negligence or other wrongful acts to sue not just for the property value of the animal lost as is the case today, but for noneconomic damages, i.e. emotional distress, loss of companionship, etc. While pets don’t enjoy “personhood,” there is a trend in the courts to ignore the animals’ legal status and award non-economic damages.
The whole animal-as-person effort is the brainchild of Steven Wise. Wise, who’s practiced animal law for over 30 years, heads his own group called the Nonhuman Rights Project (http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/). In his own words:
“Our mission is to change the common law status of at least some nonhuman animals from mere ‘things,’ which lack the capacity to possess any legal right, to ‘persons,’ who possess such fundamental rights as bodily integrity and bodily liberty, and those other legal rights to which evolving standards of morality, scientific discovery, and human experience entitle them…The most powerful ram…is the litigating of the capacity for legal rights of those nonhuman animals who are both the most cognitively complex (they have extraordinary minds) and the most cognitively similar to humans. These include the four species of great apes, dolphins and whales, elephants, and African Grey parrots.”
Wise’s goal is to litigate state by state on behalf of “smart” animals, his targets chosen based on the evolution of common law in that state and whether there’s a “plaintiff” of sufficient standing. He’s filed three cases in New York, lost one on appeal and the other two appeals are pending. It will only take one or two successes for there to be sea change in the legal status animals, including those we raise for food, use in research to find cures and treatments or those who educate and entertain us.
Animal agriculture must pay attention to this legal threat now. This sounds fanciful, even ridiculous, but remember at least two European nations amended their national constitutions to recognize animals as “sentient creatures.” Remember there exists the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) to provide pro bono (free) legal assistance to animal rights groups, that HSUS and TV game show host Bob Barker have spent literally millions of dollars endowing “animal law” chairs at some of this country’s biggest and most prestigious law schools, and the American Bar Association (ABA) has an “animal law committee” and the majority of its members aren’t our industry’s best legal minds.
Which brings us back to lawyers, numbers and talent. We need to find working attorneys willing to donate – yes, I said donate – time and talent to help us prepare for this assault before someone files a personhood suit on behalf of pigs – deemed by those in the animal rights movement as one of the most intelligent animals we routinely kill and eat.
We need young attorneys and law school students to help us – and the rest of legal animal users – to maintain our legal rights and protections. We’re fortunate to have the National Agricultural Law Center at the University of Arkansas (http://nationalaglawcenter.org/). This is a group which needs our attention, our support and our donations. I have a feeling it may be our version of ALDF one day in the future.
Check out the websites I’ve listed; check the Internet and newsfeeds for “animal law” and “animal personhood.” It’s a serious issue – at least for the other side – and one that gives the term “kangaroo court” a whole new meaning.
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