I’m really enjoying all of my classes this semester, but one stands out above the rest: Animals, Law, and Society. Learning about the laws pertaining to animals, and how they came about, and perhaps how they should change, is both interesting and depressing. Interesting because it gives me insight into how far we’ve come– from extending rights to African Americans, children, women, etc. and now the push for granting more rights to animals. Depressing because I now understand just how poorly animals are protected under the laws in the United States.
For our first essay, the professor invited us to imagine we were looking back on the history of animal law from the year 2152– 150 years in the future. Using what we had learned about how animal law has progressed thus far, she asked us to write about what we think might happen in the future. Being an avid watcher of Doctor Who, I jumped at the chance to at least pretend I could time travel. So, if you have ten minutes to kill, enjoy my quirky essay, about how I hope animal law changes in the next 150 years.
In the current year of this writing, 2152, animals are closer to gaining legal personhood under United States’ law than ever before. The shift in attitude that made this expansion of animal rights possible can be traced to a series of events which began one-hundred-fifty years ago.
After the great 2013 outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, then commonly known as mad cow disease, the United States began to shift away from its previously cruel treatment of animals. To ensure greater regulation of the meat business, abattoirs were forced to install all glass walls, as well as house FDA regulators on site. Under the eye of a wary nation, confined factory farms faced major scrutiny. The inhumane conditions in which both the animals lived and the human workers had to toil on these ‘farms’ struck the majority of the population of the United States as too cruel to be allowed to continue; thus Congress outlawed the mass production of livestock for human consumption on the basis that it was cruel and unusual punishment for all parties involved.
After the passage of this law, only small scale farms were allowed to produce meat, and soon production of feminized protein such as chicken eggs and milk was down-scaled as well. Although production of animal protein continued, American had lost their appetites for it. While the majority of people did not think that animals were their equals, they were beginning to agree that animals should not be made to suffer purely for human benefit; this attitude soon began to affect other facets of society. Soon after the fall of factory farms, circuses, animal testing, and all other forms of animal exploitation began to cease as popular opinion turned against it.
However attitudes changes slowly, and it was not until 2098 that the United States made it illegal to cause any intentional harm to animals without the consent of a judge; although still regarded as property, animals were now given some protection.
The scope of this law required a clear defining of the term Animal. It is hard to believe, but one-hundred years ago, there were multiple definitions of ‘animal’ across the United States, and few of them included invertebrates. In 2098, the Supreme Court agreed on one definition, stating that an animal is defined as a sentient nonhuman being; defining sentient as: able to perceive; to have consciousness. The Court used this wide sweeping definition in order to eliminate any grey area. The reason for this was to head off any future legal battles about the rights of certain species. The judges reasoned that humanity has a history of widening its moral circle; and so if all forms of animal life were not included in the definition today, then they would be eventually. Thus, the justices chose to forgo years of legal battle making changes to the law, and simply went ahead and included all forms of sentient life.
‘Intentional harm’ was harder to define, however. Most states currently rely on witness’ accounts to determine whether or not the perpetrator killed with ‘intent’ or was unconscious of their actions. This has caused massive uproar and confusion because, among other things, it means that one cannot kill animals like insects or reptiles which have traditionally been looked down upon and feared by the majority of Americans; this is why the added caveat of intentionality was added—to ensure that accidental murder of animals like insects was not a prosecutable offense. However, with the consent of a judge, some forms of killing are still allowed, such as the unintentional killing of insects and small mammals when tilling a farm, or the pollution of big businesses which kills millions of aquatic animals every year.
Animal law is still changing today, as people debate whether or not animals are property. If animals are no longer property, then they will be entitled to the basic rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness under United States law. This has lead to difficulty in some areas; particularly in regards to traditionally domestic animals, such as cats and dogs, which have become companions to humans over time and are accustomed to living in close quarters with us. In order for animal companions to continue to live with us, the Supreme Court would have to rule that as long as these companion animals are able to pursue their happiness, it is acceptable to keep them within one’s domicile. In this way, animals would be regarded in much the same light as children; if an animal is badly treated then it can be removed from the domicile of the person and placed within the care of the state. Similarly, the adoption process for animals would be more stringent than it was one-hundred years ago in order to assure that the animal is being placed within a home where it will be able to pursue its rights. While we cannot presume to suppose what is best for any one species of animals, and therefore cannot dictate in specific terms what each animal caretaker must specifically do to ensure that its companion has liberty and happiness, it is reasonable to suppose that this system will work; assuming that every person is able to use common sense to know whether or not their animal companion is happy.
However, just as it is difficult to judge the intent of humans, it is hard to decipher the will of animals. As we saw in 2150 in the case of Fluffy v. The Smith Family, it was not easy to determine whether or not Fluffy was unhappy when she wandered away from home, or simply curious. Is it denying Fluffy her basic liberty and pursuit of happiness to place her back with the family she otherwise seems happy with? This is the issue that Animal law will face in the coming years.