Are Animals "Things?" The Evolution of Animal Law

A important essay centers on anthrozoology and the legal status of animals

Posted Feb 25, 2016

Nonhuman animals (animals) including companion animals (pets), wild animals, and those used for research, education, entertainment, food, and clothing are a topic of great interest to people worldwide. A Google search for "animals in the news" produced 444 million hits. A large and increasing number of humans not only are interested in the social, cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of other animals, but also are concerned with how they are treated when they encounter humans. The growing field of anthrozoology -- the study of human-animal relationships -- focuses on the myriad ways humans and other animals interact, and the field of conservation psychology centers on the "study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world."

I recently wrote an essay called "Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?" in which I argued that nonhumans should be viewed as subjects, rather than as objects or things, and should be referred to as "who" or "whom," rather than "it," that," or "which." Along these lines, here I want to call your attention to an excellent essay by Cara Feinberg just published in the Harvard Magazine titled "Are Animals 'Things'"? This piece is available online so here are a few snippets to whet your appetite for more. Some of the material and the inconsistencies about the legal status of animals in the United States (but also abroad) will likely surprise and appall you, but that's how other animals are viewed under existing law. 

A stuffed animal can count more than a pet under existing law

Ms. Feinberg's essay begins:

JEREMY AND KATHRYN MEDLEN have two children, but with eight-year-old Avery around, it often felt like three. A beloved mixed-breed mutt with flopped-forward Labrador ears, Avery was a member of the family, welcome on the couch, included on vacations, a fixture in family photos. But in June 2009, the dog spooked at a thunderclap and fled the Medlens’ Fort Worth, Texas, backyard. He ended up at a nearby shelter, where his overjoyed owners found him the following day. They lacked the cash to pay the required fees, however, so a “hold for owner” tag was placed on Avery’s cage until their return. But when Jeremy Medlen arrived with the cash and his two children in tow, their pet had disappeared. Somehow, there’d been a mix-up, the Medlens were told. Avery had been put to sleep.

The Medlens learned that animals are indeed property, "but they were not like other types of property. Although an heirloom is 'sentimental,…an owner’s attachment to a beloved pet is more: It is emotional…based…on the rich companionship it provides, 'the court found, and 'cannot be shoehorned into keepsake-like sentimentality for litigation purposes.' The Medlens were stunned. If this were true, they argued, one could seek sentimental damages for the destruction of a 'taxidermied' pet deemed an heirloom, but not for a euthanized animal."

Ms. Feinberg goes on to write about a course on animal law at Harvard Law School that years ago was among one of the first of its kind. Now, more than 150 American law schools offer courses in animal law. She writes:

'animal law" as a field is relatively new, and focuses increasingly on the interests of the animals themselves, rather than on their value to the humans who write and litigate the laws governing them.

As the role of animals in society and the economy has evolved, and more recently, as scientific research has revealed more about animals’ cognitive abilities and social development, public sensibility has changed dramatically, often leaving outmoded law behind. As a result, lawyers worldwide have begun searching for innovative ways to make animals more visible to the law: strengthening and enacting new anti-cruelty statutes, improving basic protections, and, in some more radical cases, challenging animals’ property status itself in an effort to grant them fundamental rights.

Kristen Stilt, who teaches the animal law class at Harvard that usually fills on the first day of registration, told Ms. Feinberg that the law recognizes two basic categories, namely "persons" and "property," and that "Legal persons have rights, property doesn’t—so all 'animal laws' on the books are about protection and welfare, not about intrinsic individual rights." Stilt also notes, “We know how law doesn’t work for animals, but we have no clear idea yet about how it should.”

One fact that many find surprising and inconsistent is that

"There is no federal law protecting chickens from cruelty or abuse on a farm, for instance, and state anti-cruelty laws often exempt them from protection, says Jonathan Lovelorn [senior vice president and chief counsel at the Humane Society of the United States and an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University]—but if someone kills or injures a blue jay in the rafters of a chicken house filled with 10,000 laying hens crammed five or more to a crate, he 'could be fined $15,000 and sentenced to six months in jail under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act'.”

Because of the billions of nonhumans who encounter humans, there is a strong sense of urgency to change laws that pertain to other animals as soon as possible. That also is one of the goals of attorney Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project, a group that is trying to get chimpanzees to be recognized as persons under the law (please also see "Animal Rights, Steven Wise, and Steven Colbert").

Ms. Feinberg's essay is an outstanding and comprehensive review of what is happening in the United States, and I highly recommend that you read it and share it widely. It really is that important. Countless nonhuman animals are depending on laws changing sooner than later but it's going to take time and a lot of hard work. This surely is an exciting time to be working on behalf of other animals in a number of different disciplines, and it's inspiring to see how people with diverse interests are rallying around the plight of our animal kin who sorely need all the help they can get. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). (Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)

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