Legal Ease: Give animals the rights sentient beings deserve

It’s time to give animals a place in our justice system. Through the media, we regularly hear of some act of cruelty toward animals. But animals are not things. It has now been scientifically shown that many animals are cognitively and emotionally advanced, self-aware, experience pleasure and pain, and can remember and choose. Sharks travel in social groups and dolphins have been trained to locate mines. Dogs have long served us in the police and military and now they are being trained to detect breast cancer.

Steven Wise, a U.S. lawyer, tried unsuccessfully to apply Habeus Corpus to free a chimpanzee confined alone in a cage. The judge held the chimp was not a human and therefore had no status before the courts. In his book Drawing the Line – Science and the Case for Animal Rights, Wise describes honeybees communicating through dance; parrots who talk and distinguish colours, count, solve puzzles and demand food; dolphins who follow complex instructions; elephants who live in family units, cry, demonstrate memory and bury their dead; orangutans who use tools; and gorillas who use sign language.

In spite of this, our legal system classifies all animals as “things”. Every Canadian province has legislation setting out the obligations of humans with regard to animals; naming special inspectors to ensure animals are not in distress and providing penalties for abusers. The Canadian Criminal Code provides that certain acts that cause harm to animals are crimes and can lead to imprisonment. Still, humans are known to ignore these laws and to violate these legal obligations.

Animals, capable of feelings, are referred to as sentient. The Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare acknowledges the importance of the sentience of animals and human responsibilities towards them and sets out rules to prevent cruelty and reduce suffering. The Universal Declaration of Animal Rights states that all living beings possess natural rights, that any animal with a nervous system has specific rights, that the coexistence of species implies a recognition by the human species of the right of other animal species to live, and that the respect animals by humans is inseparable from the respect of for one another. It goes on to proclaim that: “All animals have equal rights to exist within the context of biological equilibrium and all animal life has the right to be respected. Animals must not be subjected to bad treatments or to cruel acts.”

The declaration states further that wild animals have the right to live and to reproduce in freedom in their own natural environments, that any animal dependent on humans has the right to proper sustenance and care and must, under no circumstances, be abandoned or killed unjustifiably. It also includes the following statement, “The specific legal status of animals and their rights must be recognized by law.”

What is that legal status? In North America animals are considered property like a table or chair. Given their cognitive and emotional capacity, this seems totally unjustified and unreasonable. Admittedly they are not persons and they cannot do most things humans can do. However, they may be able to do more than a person lacking capacity. Their dignity should be recognized and a status other than that of an object should be granted.

A legal system of rights and obligations governs human existence. Specific laws regulate our interpersonal relationships. When we violate these laws, we can be sued by the person we have harmed and be held responsible for the damage we have caused. Similarly, there are laws to protect animals. But there is nothing the animal can do when we violate them. They have no legal standing before the courts and the representatives designated by society are not always effective in enforcing the law and ensuring that the appropriate penalty is imposed. Animals need a voice of their own. In order to have one, they must be removed from the category we call “things.”

As sentient beings, animals are not to be treated as tables and chairs. Their status within our legal system must be altered. There is precedent in our law for the creation of legal persons, namely corporations, which have full enjoyment and exercise of civil rights. Corporations are not sentient beings, but they have rights they can exercise through legal representatives. Why should sentient animals not be able to do the same?

The Quebec Civil Code states that every human being possesses juridical personality and has full enjoyment of civil rights including the right to life, to inviolability and integrity of his person. The Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms states that all human beings are equal in worth and dignity and entitled to equal protection of the law. They have the right to life, and to personal security, inviolability and freedom. Humans also have a right to assistance when their life is in peril and to safeguard their dignity. Babies and those with diminished capacity possess these basic human rights. Why should animals not have the same? They can be taught complex tasks and have feelings. They may not have the capacity to enjoy the freedoms guaranteed under the Charter, namely, freedom of conscience, of religion, of opinion, of expression, of peaceful assembly and of association, but then neither do all humans.

Humans lacking capacity can be represented in the exercise of their rights. They can name someone in a mandate in the event of incapacity failing which the court will appoint someone to do so. Why should animals not be entitled to similar representation?

Laws may vary with regard to our obligations towards animals but here in North America, we have not legally acknowledged them to be more than possessions. It’s time for that to change. Sentient animals are worthy of dignity and legal representation.


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