This isn’t just the domain of PETA anymore, either. Many pet owners are shocked to learn that they can’t sue for wrongful death when someone else’s negligence (airlines seem to be the most well-known offenders) cause the death of their pets. Many are shocked and appalled when they find out that, typically, they’re only entitled to the animal’s market value, since animals are legally treated as property in almost every legal system in the world. Wrongful death lawsuits, however, are only available for the death, caused by the wrongful conduct of another, of a close human relative, such as a spouse, domestic partner, parent, or child.
The basis for the wrongful death cause of action is compensation for the extreme emotional and personal loss when a loved one dies, as well as an attempt to compensate for the economic loss. The loss of a pet, regardless of how devastating it might be to the owner, simply isn’t treated the same way.
There has been a move in some states to treat pets as “special property” – which is a label that some legal systems give to unique, irreplaceable pieces of property, the loss of which might transcend its market value. Family heirlooms are sometimes given this label, meaning that if someone negligently or intentionally destroys it, they might have to compensate the owner for more than the market value of the object. When most people mourn the loss of a pet the “replacement cost” of obtaining a similar animal isn’t what they’re thinking about.
Almost all laws that specifically protect animals either stem from the property rights of the animal’s owner, or, in the case of laws against animal cruelty and neglect, they stem from the idea that such conduct, which boils down to pointless sadism, is debasing to human society as a whole. The idea that the individual animals involved have rights rarely enters the equation.
Now that the immediate crisis of the BP oil spill is over, the focus is likely to focus on the legal consequences for those responsible. Several organizations that focus on animal law are filing lawsuits against BP on behalf of the thousands of animals that were killed, injured, and sickened as a result of the oil spill. While harm to animals can sometimes create legal causes of action, such as loss of property, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and certain claims under various environmental laws, it’s almost unheard of to file a lawsuit on behalf of the animals themselves.
So, should this become a regular trend? Your answer to this question largely depends on you view of the nature of legal rights. For example, if you view rights purely as a legal construct, which the law can create or eliminate at will, you probably don’t see anything inherently wrong with extending legal rights to animals, if it would advance a policy goal which you favor.
However, many other people view rights as moral principles, which exist regardless of what the law says, and that it’s the law’s job to protect rights, rather than create them. Among those who subscribe to this idea, there are innumerable opinions as to where these rights come from, whether they come from religious principles, or stem from human nature. Your opinion on this issue will also color your position on the question of animal rights.
I’m not going to get into evaluating the validity of these different positions. There are plenty of blogs and articles about jurisprudence out there, where you could read about this to your heart’s content.
However, if we do decide (on whatever basis) that animals are entitled to all, or even some, of the rights afforded to humans, on the same basis as we afford those rights to humans, some obvious practical problems come up.
First of all, with rights come responsibilities. Humans are generally viewed as having an inalienable right to live. The existence of that right comes with the responsibility to not deprive another person of their life. What if we decide that both lions and gazelles have an inalienable right to life? We’re either going to have to ignore the rights of the gazelles, or we’ll have to throw a lot of lions into animal prison. And would living under such a system mean living in a world where eating a hamburger is a capital offense? I think I’ll pass.
In all seriousness, however, many recent studies have shown that almost all animals, from chimpanzees down to goldfish, are far smarter than we once assumed. We’ve learned fairly recently that crows can not only use tools, but make them, as well. They’ve been seen doing this in the wild (and passing the knowledge on to other individuals) as well as in captivity, using materials that they would never encounter in the wild. This demonstrates highly advanced cognitive and problem-solving abilities which were, not long ago, thought to be the exclusive domain of humans.
Some animals are clearly not as different from us as we once believed, and would perhaps like to believe. How will this affect their treatment under the law? Well, as fascinating as these discoveries are, they don’t eliminate the huge practical issues that come up if we treat animals as if they have rights. Besides the fact that no animals, no matter how smart they are, seem to demonstrate that they have a concept of rights, we would have to decide just how far to take the premise of “animal rights.” Would it simply mean that animals have a right to not be treated with unnecessary cruelty? We already have laws against animal cruelty, and whether they stem from animal rights or not, they’re fairly effective. If they go further, we’d be looking at a fundamental change in human society.