Persons not Property – Could the Tide be Turning?

“The status of animals as property, means that, as a practical matter, animal suffering will be regarded as necessary whenever it benefits human property owners. If we really are to take animal interests seriously 

we can no longer treat animals as human resources.

Prof Francione puts it in a nutshell for us. If Animal Rights is about anything, it’s about changing the status of non-human animals in the eyes of society, and changing their status in law. Can anyone in 2016 still feasibly maintain there is no difference between the things we possess (cars, houses, furniture) and living breathing beings?  

Could the tide be turning? I do believe it is. We are witnessing a groundswell of public opinion against the subjugation and abuse of our fellow earth dwellers.

The European Union led the way in recognising animals as sentient – possessing a level of conscious awareness and able to have feelings –  way back in 1997. The legal recognition of animal sentience is an important step towards their recognition as persons. (France though must have been dragging its national as opposed to european feet because it was 18 years later that we saw this:- “pet-lovers of France are banding together and demanding positive changes in animal rights law. And thanks to their efforts, the legal status of all animals nationwide will likely be reclassified to ‘sentient beings’ very shortly. Prior to 2015, an archaic law from several hundred years ago still refers to members of the animal kingdom as ‘movables’. This essentially gives dogs, cats, and all other living creatures the same rights and privileges as the family coffee table or the proverbial kitchen sink.”) LCA Blog

Germany amended its constitution to grant animals certain rights in 2002.

The Balearic Islands, an autonomous region of Spain, granted personhood to great apes in 2007.

India‘s Ministry of Forests and Environment pronounced in 2013 that dolphins and whales should be treated as non-human persons

In Argentina (this brings us up to 2015) a judge appeared to grant personhood to an orangutan, though observers say the full interpretation of that case has yet to be worked out.

In Canada nothing quite so dramatic, but recent rulings could lay the groundwork for pro-personhood cases, according to BC-based animal rights lawyer Rebeka Breder.


Lucy the elephant was the subject of a lengthy dissent by Chief Justice of Alberta Catherine Fraser in 2011.

“Courts across the country are starting to recognize, even though animals are technically property, that they’re also something a little bit more than property,” she says. “They’re somewhere between furniture and a person”

“Animals might not yet have rights in the conventional sense … but the very least that can be said is that their status is evolving wrote Judge W S Schlosser

Breder warns that achieving personhood may be a slow process, noting that “it took a long time, for example, before women won recognition as legal persons in Canada. But the law eventually caught up with … the societal uproar CBC News

In New Zealand The Animal Welfare Amendment was passed in May last year. The new bill states that animals, like humans, are “sentient” beings — meaning they are able to perceive and feel things. “To say that animals are sentient is to state explicitly that they can experience both positive and negative emotions, including pain and distress,” said Dr Virginia Williams, chair of the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee. “The explicitness is what is new and marks another step along the animal welfare journey.” “Expectations on animal welfare have been rapidly changing. The bill brings legislation in line with our nation’s changing attitude on the status of animals in society said New Zealand Veterinary Association president Dr Steve Merchant.

The USA in 2015 saw the widely publicised case brought by Nonhuman Rights Project on behalf of two chimpanzees kept in captivity for  research at Stony Brook University. Justice Barbara Jaffe issued the writs [of habeas corpus] on behalf of Hercules and Leo, the Stony Brook chimps. It’s the first time habeas corpus, historically used to free slaves and people wrongly imprisoned, has ever been extended to a species other than Homo Sapiens.

“It’s a breakthrough. The judge is implicitly saying that chimps are—or at least could bepersons” says Steven Wise, an attorney and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project. (Wired)

Sadly the case was later thrown out. As was an earlier case seeking rights for Tommy, another NY chimpanzee. Wise is quick to emphasize that the Nonhuman Rights Project isn’t seeking full human rights for Tommy and other chimpanzees. Rather, they’re seeking recognition of just one right: the right not to be imprisoned against one’s will. After that, says Wise, other rights can be negotiated as society considers appropriate.

That brings us to the most famous case of all.

Last September, PETA filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. federal court in San Francisco to declare Naruto—a then–6-year-old male, free-living crested #macaque who is part of a group in Indonesia—the author and owner of the internationally famous monkey selfie photographs that he took himself a few years ago.

Why is this so important, and what does it all mean? If this lawsuit succeeds, it will be the first time that a nonhuman animal is declared the owner of property (the copyright of the “monkey selfie”), rather than being declared a piece of property himself or herself. It will also be the first time that a right is extended to a nonhuman animal [in the US] beyond just the mere basic necessities of food, shelter, water, and veterinary care. In our view, it is high time.

A Gallup poll in May 2015 found that almost a third of Americans support the idea of animals having the same rights and protections as humans. Now that is HUGE! Especially when you take into account the scale of hunting, ranching and livestock farming in the States. Whether all species should have these rights was unspecified. I imagine it’s doubtful that the American public think earthworms deserve the same status as #primates. It is notable that in all the countries I have mentioned, personhood has only been granted, or mooted, for certain primates and #marinemammals considered closest to the human animal in terms of human measurements of intelligence.

Even so, and despite powerful opposition from wealthy vested interests, the tide is turning. Animals keep on moving higher and higher up the agenda, thanks to the tireless, selfless work of animal rights organisations and individual activists. I offer them my heartfelt gratitude and wishes for ever-snowballing  success in 2016.


14 thoughts on “Persons not Property – Could the Tide be Turning?

  1. Thank you for an excellent and informative article which gives hope that things will change for the better for animals, all animals. There is now so much evidence that animals are thinking feeling sentient beings and as such they have rights and are not property subject to the whim of human beings.


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