Animals and the Law

I have been quiet lately, dedicating time to reading, writing, reflecting, and soul searching; trying to figure out what I want for my career, my blog, my life. 

One thing I regret in life is not taking an animal law course in law school. So I bought an animal law textbook to teach myself now.

Do animals have rights? Should they have rights? Any rights are often limited to “companion animals.” Advising on a pro bono matter in Idaho, I worked on a document that specifically excluded livestock from any rights given to companion animals. In other words, while cats and dogs may have some rights, cows, pigs, and chickens do not have any rights. Effectively, an animal obtains rights because it is deemed lovable, cute, a companion.

Even these rights are limited and arbitrary. In the U.S., people love and protect cats and dogs, while in other countries, it is accepted to eat cats and dogs. A man may beat his dog to death and face criminal charges, but dogs are still used in animal testing – forcibly fed pesticides and other harmful chemicals until they often die from these experiments. 

Where do we draw the line as to which beings are deserving of consideration; who is deserving of rights? Throughout history, we have drawn distinctions at race, ethnicity, gender, abilities, and religion. We have rationalized distinctions based on theories of superiority and intelligence. 

Ultimately, the principle of human equality is a moral idea. It is a prescription of how we should treat human beings. There are factual differences between people, but it does not justify any difference in the consideration we give to their needs and welfare. 

We continue to draw distinctions at species, however. We do not consider (or fully consider) the interests of animals because we believe they are inferior. Their interests do not matter because they are not intelligent. We use ableist theories. Yet, Albert Einstein had superior intellect; did his life matter more than others? We ignore that while an animal may not speak, it can still suffer – no different than an infant. 

Society has also rationalized that God created animals for us. God, however, did not create the billions of cows and pigs we kill and eat today. We did. Through domesticating wild animals. Through artificial insemination and engineering. 

Nor do I believe that God created sentient beings, capable of pain and suffering, for the purpose of exploitation. Animals were created to live with us, to support the biodiversity of the planet. Not for us to abuse and oppress. The Baha’i teachings explain that we should be “infinitely tender and loving to animals.” For more Baha’i Teachings and the treatment of animals, see my posts How My Religion Helps Me Be Vegan and Peace Begins with Empathy.

[P]eople may talk as much as they like about their religion, but if it does not teach them to be good and kind to man and beast, it is all a sham.

Anna Sewell, Black Beauty 

So where should we draw the line as to which beings deserve equal consideration?

“The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?”* 

Jeremy Bentham

By considering the interests of all beings with the capacity to suffer, we do not arbitrarily exclude from consideration any interests at all. We do not deem some animals (e.g. companion animals) worthy of consideration and arbitrarily celebrate the killing and abuse of others. 

*I’ve been asked, “What about plant suffering?” This is merely trivializing the suffering of sentient beings. Watch a slaughterhouse video or see animals confined in cages so small they can’t move or turn their entire lives. Then compare that to picking a fruit from a tree. Animals have nervous systems. They experience stress. They feel pain. They moan, they yelp, they squeal. They fight or flight. Pain has biological usefulness. It is part of survival.