Politics & Policy

When Animals Sue

Don't laugh. It could happen.

Should animals, like indigent criminal defendants, be provided with legal representation by the state? It could happen. As Time has reported, on March 7, voters in Switzerland will decide whether to give “domestic creatures . . . the constitutional right to be represented by (human) lawyers in court.”

What? Treating animals at law as if they were human? Don’t laugh. Lest we be tempted to dismiss the referendum as just the latest European post-modernistic folly, the effort to open our own courtrooms to animals is quietly advancing. Indeed, “animal standing,” as the issue is usually called, is at the very top of the animal-rights movement’s policy wish list.

But animals suing? For most people, the very idea is a surreal fantasy out of a Far Side cartoon. But from the viewpoint of animal-rights ideologues, nothing could be more logical. The dogma of animal liberation demands the obliteration of all animal industries and, eventually, the eradication by attrition of all domesticated animals. As Wayne Pacelle stated in 1993 before being appointed to his current post as head of the Humane Society of the United States, “One generation and out. We have no problem with the extinction of domestic animals. They are the product of human selective breeding.”

#ad#What could further the eradication goal more dramatically than allowing domesticated animals to sue their owners in court? The real litigants, of course, would be animal-rights activists — committed true believers who would use the raw power of litigation to force animal industries to their knees. Imagine the chaos: hundreds of animal lawyers, filing thousands of lawsuits, leading to hundreds of thousands of depositions, forcing industries to spend tens of millions of dollars on lawyers and legal costs defending their husbandry. No animal industry would be safe, and many would not survive.

Animal standing also has a philosophical purpose. The ultimate goal of animal rights is not merely the improved treatment of animals; that effort is properly called animal welfare. Animal-rights dogma holds that there is no moral distinction to be made between animals and humans, and therefore what is done to an animal should be viewed as if it were done to a human.

One way to achieve societal acquiescence in this view would be to transform at least some animals into legal “persons.” As animal-rights-crusading law professor Stephen Wise wrote in Drawing the Line: Science and the Case for Animal Rights, convincing the courts to grant “practical personhood” to chimps and other higher mammals would open the courtroom door to animals, a move he described as “the first and most crucial step toward unlocking the cage” to all animals generally:

On what non arbitrary ground could a judge find the [profoundly disabled] girl has a common law right to bodily integrity that forbids her use in terminal biomedical research, but that Koko [a gorilla] shouldn’t have that right, without violating basic notions of equality? Only a radical speciesist could accept a baby girl who lacks consciousness, sentience, even a brain, as having legal rights just because she is human, yet thinkingest, talkingest, feelingest apes have no rights at all, just because they’re not human.

In other words, activists are striving for human/animal moral equality by working from both ends toward the middle: Granting personhood to animals would open the door to legal standing and the destruction of animal industries, while granting animals the right to sue would result in their elevation to legal personhood. From the activists’ perspective, it doesn’t matter which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Disturbingly, animal standing has friends in very high places who are not animal-rights activists. None other than Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe, in a 2000 speech extolling Wise’s work, supported animal standing. Proclaiming a “deep intuition that chimps and dolphins and dogs and cats are infinitely precious — like ourselves,” Tribe lent his reputation to the cause of granting animals the right to sue:

Recognizing the animals themselves by statute as holders of rights would mean that they could sue in their own name and in their own right. . . . [G]iving animals this sort of “virtual voice” would go a long way toward strengthening the protection they will receive under existing laws and hopefully improved laws, and our constitutional history is replete with instances of such legislatively conferred standing.

Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s “regulations czar,” also supported animal standing prior to his becoming part of the administration. In 2000, writing in the UCLA Law Review, Sunstein advocated amending federal and state animal-welfare laws to permit private “individuals” — by which he meant both human and animal — to bring suit against abusers “to supplement currently weak agency enforcement efforts.”

#page#Of all the ubiquitous advocacy thrusts by animal-rights advocates, successfully obtaining legal standing for animals could prove the most significant. First, it would accomplish a major animal-rights goal of profoundly undermining the status of animals as property. Second, it would create utter chaos in animal industries, which would also badly damage the general economy, much of which depends on the use of animals and animal byproducts. Most significantly, on an existential level, the perceived exceptional nature of human life would suffer a body blow through the erasure of one of the clear definitional lines that distinguish people from animals — the belief in human exceptionalism.

This is the future for which animal liberationists devoutly yearn. Considering our crazy cultural history of the last 50 years, and given the energetic commitment of animal-rights activists, their abundant resources, and the intellectual support they have received already from some of society’s most influential thinkers, it would be complacent folly to blithely assume, “It can’t happen here.”

– Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute. His current book is A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy: The Human Cost of the Animal Rights Movement (Encounter).

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