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Should Animals be Granted Legal Personhood?

Published: 16 APR 2018 08:23AM

Words by Ross W. Marriott | Staff Writer

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Tommy is a 26-year-old chimpanzee who lives in a cage in a trailer park. His owner, Patrick Lavery, states that Tommy's "got it good. He's got a lot of enrichment. He's got colour TV, cable and a stereo".

The truth is, an average day for Tommy resembles the average day of a prisoner - he wakes up each day surrounded by steel, concrete and monotony (worse... he’s living in New York, so his cable channels are likely all American).

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For the past couple of years, an animal welfare group called The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) have been fighting to change the legal status of animals like Tommy from legal ‘things’ to legal ‘persons’. This would grant them more rights and give animal welfare groups the legal authority to relocate mistreated animals to better living quarters.

The distinction between a ‘thing’ and a ‘person’ has been flexible throughout history; women, children, and slaves have all – at some point - been considered objects in the same way that animals are now, and thousands of scientific studies have repeatedly proven that animals feel pain, fear and pleasure just like we do.

In an interview with The Independent last year, founder and spokesman for the NhRP, Steven Wise, explained why this distinction is important: “Since Roman times, the world has been divided into things that lack the capacity for any legal rights, and persons who have the capacity for an infinite number of human rights”, adding that “when you're a 'thing', you don't count in law, your value is not inherent or intrinsic, your value is the value that the persons give you. You are a slave to the person, who is a master. Even your most fundamental interests are not protected."

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The court case on the behalf of Tommy (and another chimpanzee known as Kiko) has been raging on for nearly five years now. Last year, the NhRP suffered a setback after their request for legal personhood on behalf of Tommy and Kiko was denied. In January, they received another blow after the New York appeals court denied their motion to appeal the decision.

Undeterred, the NhRP have recently been working alongside a group of eminent philosophers who are seeking to define ‘personhood’ in such a way that will include intelligent animals such as chimpanzees and bonobos.

The philosophers have submitted what is known as an ‘amicus curiae’ brief, which is effectively ‘expert support’ for a case. According to the brief, previous courts have misconstrued elements of the Nonhuman Rights Project’s argument, made assumptions about what is and isn’t a ‘person’ and falsely assigned legal definitions to philosophical ideas that are actually quite abstract.

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Some detractors are asking ‘where will it stop?’ Will abattoirs shut down? Will we have to drive to the woods and free all of our pets?

It’s more likely that an adapted version of what already exists will have to be created. For example, corporations are considered ‘legal persons’, but they obviously don’t fulfill many of the definitions that constitute a human being. This shows that being a human isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for being granted rights.

The fact that businesses have more legal rights than our cousins in the animal kingdom isn't just a sign that our priorities are messed up, it could also have implications for our future.

The late Stephen Hawking thought that Artificial Intelligence may become a very real possibility in the future, and cases such as Tommy's could set an ethical precedent for the ambiguities and murky legal boundaries that A.I. might pose.

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