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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Should we grant animals peoplehood? Surprise! We already have.

Cartoon by Peter Steiner from The New Yorker  in 1993 
Oh sure, it may not be official yet but it is, de facto, happening. And, funny thing, it is more serious than ever.

Biologically, of course, animals are not humans. Still, that doesn’t alter the debate that animals should be considered “people” in the eyes of the law. Buildings and municipalities are often referred to as 'people' in courtroom legalese and accorded that status in lawsuits.

The animal status issue goes back many years in history. In 1386, a pig was tried by jury and put to death for killing a child. The sow was arrested and imprisoned in the same cell as human criminals. During the pig's trial, witnesses were called, evidence was weighed, and a verdict handed down: guilty of murder.

On execution day, the pig was paraded through town wearing a man's waistcoat and white shirt to symbolize the equality of animals and men in the court's eyes. It's unknown if this was a common practice, but either way, the outfit only served to make the scene all the more dreadful when the execution began.

While most trials dealt with crimes against man, sometimes animals were the target of human cruelty as well. But even then they were not always viewed as innocent victims. In cases where men had committed "the unnatural deed... " with an animal, the poor creature was considered compliant, and therefore charged, convicted, and executed along with the human that had assaulted it.

A later case featured character witnesses who came forward to say they had known the defendant for many years and had always found her to be virtuous and well-behaved. Of course they were talking about the donkey, who was acquitted and set free. No one came forward to testify for the accused so he burned at the stake. (Thanks Mental Floss for this info.)

There are many similar stories, some even more bizarre. In Tennessee about 100 years ago, Mary, the elephant was tried and convicted for the killing of her handler who had treated her cruelly. She was sentenced to be hung... and she was... twice, when the first crane used broke. There is a photo that is far too pitiful to use.

Animals, especially pets, have lately been seen as having rights as well. Today, all 50 states have felony anticruelty laws that impose fines up to $125,000 and 10 years in prison. A federal law after Hurricane Katrina requires rescue agencies save pets as well as people. In the early 1900s, dogs and cats were deemed worthless and could be stolen or killed without repercussion. A framed photo of that pet, if stolen, was a greater crime than if the pet in the photo had been taken.

In dispute cases involving animals some judges have assigned legal representation to dogs, cats, dolphins, chimps and other creatures to uphold their rights.

"Personhood" status for pets goes further as we accept there are no 'dumb' animals and that animals cannot be treated as 'things' or 'property' at our whim. Some animals are smarter than us in some ways. Chimps have been proven to consistently outperform humans in some common game-theory exercises.

A Los Angeles man was awarded $39,000 in a veterinarian malpractice verdict for the death of his Labrador mix. In Colorado, there was a $65,000 award for a dog let loose that was killed by a car. That was far above the dog's $299 cost but still paled in perceived value, anguish, loss and suffering to its owners.

It is then, not surprising that the Veterinary Medical Association is wary and has warned that 'personhood' for pets could flood the courts, drive vets out of business and ultimately harm our pets by making veterinary services prohibitively expensive. But anyone who has a pet will tell you that there is a closeness to an animal that loves unquestionably and with feeling than can never be taken casually. Take just a moment to look at this six-second clip and tell me you are unmoved.

This brings question to how far can/should we go. Do chickens, cows and sheep have rights to avoid being bred for consumption? If you are a purist, vegetarian or vegan, I know your answer. But for the masses, the answer is that all living creatures should be accorded the maximum right to dignity, even as food sources. Temple Grandin found her autistic senses keenly in-tune with animals and she dramatically changed our thinking and industry practices on that.

A point has been made that this "personhood" issue is a perceived parallel to the fight for women's rights as it progressed because the core value is fair consideration, in kind, to every living creature. You know, that's not a bad way to think about a lot of things.

That belief certainly has many, champions. Few though have had broader impact than Mahatma Gandhi, the Indian leader whose profound spirituality and belief in justice continues to inspire the world years after his death.  He led India to independence and inspired movements for civil rights and freedom across the world.

One of his quotes fits in nicely here:
"The greatness of a nation is judged by the way its animals are treated.


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