"In the legal sense, animals are regarded as 'things,' mere objects that can be bought, sold, discarded, or destroyed at an owner's whim. Only when animals can be regarded as 'persons' in the eyes of the law will it be possible to give teeth to the often-fuzzy laws protecting animals from abuse.” -Dr. Jane Goodall
Marisa was born in a German zoo on Valentine’s Day in 1986. At the age of 8 years old, she flew across the ocean to live in a zoo in Argentina and her name was changed to Sandra. In 1999, she gave birth to a daughter, who would be sent to live in a Chinese zoo at the age of 9 years old. You might have suspected by now that Sandra is not a a human being. She is an orangutan.
Sandra stepped into the world’s spotlight in 2015, when she became the first ever non-human person in an Argentinian court of law. The Association of Lawyers for Animal Rights in Argentina filed a writ of habeas corpus on Sandra’s behalf in 2014. Although initially unsuccessful, this lead the court to not only prosecute the zoo for animal cruelty, but the judge also declared Sandra to be a “non-human person.” The decision was appealed and after a lengthy battle in court, Sandra was finally released to a great ape sanctuary in Florida in 2019.
It might seem apparent that personhood and its legal protections be granted to great apes, our close evolutionary cousins, animals very much like us. Primates possess cognitive abilities, social structures, and emotional landscapes similar and familiar to us humans. What about the other animals with whom we share our lives so intimately?
When it comes to our dogs, most of us treat them like our babies or readily call them our family. This isn’t a stretch scientifically either - the latest science of dog cognition reveals that a dog’s brain has roughly the same capacity as a 2-3 year old human child. In all the ways that matter, our dogs are our children. Is it time we think about granting them the right of legal personhood? What is legal personhood all about?
To understand legal personhood, we can look at the ways the concept has been used historically to deny rights to others. After the civil war, the 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865. The 14th amendment, 3 years later, granted black men the right to legal personhood; which includes the rights to life, liberty, and property ownership. At that time, women were still a part of the property class, and not yet determined to be legal persons. This was challenged in the Supreme Court in 1874, but the ruling of Minor v. Happersett asserts that the 14th amendment only applies to black men. The Supreme Court then established corporate personhood in 1889 with in their ruling of Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Co. v. Beckwith. That’s right, corporations gained legal personhood 82 years before women.
Not until more than a century after the 14th amendment passes is the personhood for women once again argued in front of the Supreme Court. The ruling of Reed v. Reed in 1971 finally determined that the 14th amendment includes women after all. Women have now officially been legal persons for the last 49 years. This calls into question the entire flimsy notion of personhood and who does and does not deserve basic rights.
Why should personhood only apply to humans when it previously excluded certain humans based on arbitrary characteristics? Given all we know about non-human cognition and emotions, why not continue to expand this malleable notion of personhood to other beings who, by the nature of their own existence, also deserve life, liberty, and a protected home?
Activists across the globe in 2020 are coming together to support a non-human animal bill of rights called Rose’s Law. Actions include rescuing animals from terrible conditions on farms, giving them medical treatment, telling their stories, lobbying and contacting legislators about the right to rescue, and staging mass civil disobedience to start a dialogue about the rights of non-human animals in modern society. Were we to grant personhood to non-human persons, what rights would that include? Ask yourself if you think your dog is entitled to the following protections:
The right to be free - not owned - or to have a guardian acting in their best interest.
The right to not be exploited, abused, or killed by humans.
The right to have their interests represented in court and protected by the law.
The right to a protected home, habitat, or ecosystem.
The right to be rescued from situations of distress and exploitation.
Some cities and one whole state have changed their legal language to reflect the fact that our companion animals are more than mere material property. In 2003, San Francisco joined a growing number of cities that think of their animal-owning population as pet guardians. Proponents hope that using "guardian," instead of "owner," will help reflect a greater sense of respect and responsibility for the animals in our care. This change also indicates that our companions have interests of their own that must be protected.
"Our dream is to have every person, young and old, see and treat animals not as objects, property and things to be exploited, abused, abandoned, or killed, but as individuals who deserve consideration for their needs and quality of life. Our dream is fast becoming a reality as hundreds of thousands of caring people are throwing off the mantle of "owner” in favor of the caring mantle of "guardian."
-Dr. Elliot M. Katz, Founder of In Defense of Animals (IDA)
Boulder, CO, was the first city to adopt such an ordinance, followed by Berkeley and West Hollywood in California; Sherwood, Arizona; Amherst, Massachusetts; Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin; and the entire state of Rhode Island. Small changes like this mean little for animals in practical terms, but over time this language can help to shape attitudes and behavior when it comes to society’s treatment of animals.
"Over the past 126 years, the Oakland SPCA has learned that creating a better tomorrow for our companion animals starts with teaching respect for all living beings today. IDA's Guardian Campaign is an effort that starts at the very basic level, recognizing the power of our words in shaping not only our own attitudes, but the attitudes of those who are around us."
-Gary Templin, Former President Oakland SPCA
Great apes like Sandra spring to mind as obvious examples of non-human persons - as do dolphins, whales, elephants, and corvids. These animals are renowned for not only their cunning and intelligence, but also for their playfulness and compassion. The list goes on and on, and includes a wide range of animals often neglected from the public eye.
People who live with pigs know them to be just as playful, curious, quirky, social, emotional, and intelligent as our dogs. Thinking Pigs: A Comparative Review of Cognition, Emotion, and Personality in Sus domesticus published in 2015 explores the complex intricacies of pigs’ cognitive abilities. Some areas where pigs excel include symbolic language comprehension, numerical understanding, ability to anticipate and plan for future events, and understanding human body language and indications. Pigs can be trained with positive reinforcement, just like our canine companions!
While we might more easily recognize the intelligence and emotions of primates that resemble ourselves, or pigs that resemble our companions, many animals can serve as examples of vastly underestimated intelligence. Along with great apes, dolphins, and elephants, pigeons pass the mirror self-recognition test. Highly social, they are also notoriously caring parents and will enthusiastically raise orphaned babies in need of care. The internal navigational ability of the homer pigeon is unrivaled. Feral pigeons are close cousins of the hundreds of types of fancy pigeon that have been bred since their domestication four thousand years ago. In many ways, pigeons are the dogs of the avian world and our forgotten companions.
We want to give our dogs the best possible life because we know that is exactly what they deserve. While dogs vastly enrich our lives, it is easy to recognize they each have their own personalities, their own interests and desires. The same is true for animals that are often overlooked and deemed unworthy of protection or mere consideration. Our notion of personhood is malleable and should be extended to those vulnerable beings who are just like our dogs in all the ways that matter. They form strong emotional bonds with us and with each other, they crave safety, warmth, and comfort. They too deserve the best life possible during their short stay on this planet and deserve to have their interests protected. You can learn more about supporting Rose’s Law at www.roseslaw.org.