The Semiotics of a Deer Beheading in Houston

I read today that a tame deer was beheaded at the Bear Creek Pioneer Park “wildlife sanctuary” in Houston.  Having spent some time in Houston, it surprised me to learn of the existence of a wildlife sanctuary there.  So I looked it up.  Wikipedia describes Bear Creek Pioneers Park thus (the park itself has no working url):

Bear Creek Pioneers Park . . . has paved roads and parking spaces that visitors can use. The park also has walking trails, an equestrian trail, a small zoo (including buffalos, an ostrich, and emus) and aviary, playgrounds, soccer fields, little league and softball fields, four lighted tennis courts, eight picnic pavilions, horseshoe courts, and hundreds of picnic tables and grills. Near the aviary ducks can been seen walking freely around a pond. The park also has restrooms all around the park and drinking water fountains. The park is open all week from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm (local time).

Though I have never been to this place, I have visited quite a few wildlife sanctuaries.  None had little league fields, playgrounds, or lighted tennis courts.  And most importantly, none had zoos.  Indeed, wildlife sanctuaries are in many (most? all?) respects the antithesis of zoos.  They are supposed to be places where wildlife can live in their natural habitat, free of human encroachment and predation.  As a result, one rarely encounters wildlife sanctuaries in major cities.  Indeed, Houston would have topped my list of the least likely places to find one.  Furthermore, animals in wildlife sanctuaries are not “tame.”  “Tame wildlife” is an oxymoron.  I could say more about this but, of necessity, I move on.

At this alleged wildlife sanctuary, someone cut through the fence penning in the animals and beheaded a “tame deer” that dwelt within.  The perpetrator then made off with the head and antlers.  This act outraged the Harris County Commissioner who declared that anyone who kills an animal in captivity “is just the lowest of the low.”   The article informs us that taxidermy shops throughout Houston were alerted to the crime.

One has to wonder what the taxidermy shops were told to look for.  Is it unusual for someone to stride into such places clutching a bloody head and antlers?  While such patrons would stand out in most places, taxidermists cater to people who kill animals and then seek to turn parts of the corpses into wall hangings.

I wonder too if the Harris County Commissioner feels equally outraged by the many “ranches” in Texas offering “high fenced” hunting safaris for those discerning sportsmen who crave a guaranteed kill.  Does he revile our soon-to-be former vice president, who regularly patronizes such places (and only occasionally shoots his host)?  This type of “canned hunting” is quite common in Texas as well as in many other states.

Perhaps the Commissioner (who I have never met and know nothing about) does revile activities of this sort.  Still, I remain bemused.  Of course, the slaughter of the deer was an atrocity.  But does no one else find it ironic that killing a captive deer in a “wildlife sanctuary” in a state where canned hunts are a popular pastime would generate such outrage and opprobrium?

I am beginning to truly grasp the meaning of “tragicomic.”

David Cassuto

Turkey Pardons

Much has been said about the ritual of Thanksgiving and its accompanying slaughter of hundreds of millions of defenseless birds, most of who lived short lives of unrelenting and abject misery.  I have little to add to what’s already out there except my own indignation and sorrow.

But I do have something to say about the Thanksgiving ritual, particularly the embedded legal contradiction in the practice (discussed by Luis below) of pardoning turkeys.  To pardon means “to release (a person) from further punishment for a crime.”  At Thanksgiving, however, the concept of the pardon gets up-ended.  The turkeys supposedly petitioning for clemency have committed no wrong.  Their lives consist of brutal mistreatment with slaughter soon to follow (the latter, I might add, will occur devoid of any of the protections of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act since under Department of Agriculture regulations, birds are not “animals” and thus not legally entitled to a merciful death).  If anything, egregious crimes have been wrought upon these birds.  Yet, every year, one or two are selected at random and “pardoned.”  This ritual amounts to transferring the guilt of the perpetrators on to the victims and then forgiving a token few of them in a bizarre act of self-absolution by proxy.

The pardon no doubt is supposed to demonstrate mercy and humor but in my view, it demonstrates neither (case in point: Sarah Palin’s now infamous video ).  It rather reveals a deep societal discomfort with the fact that a holiday that celebrates life’s blessings and an industry devoted to torture and death are conjoined and mutually dependent.

David Cassuto

Yet Another Reason to Never Vote For Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin implemented a program to encourage the hunting of wolves in order to eliminate the natural predators of moose and caribou. Why? So that Alaskan hunters could have more moose and caribou to kill. She also asked Bush to exclude polar bears from the endangered species list. Watch this recent video of Palin’s interview while turkeys are being slaughtered for yet another reason to never vote for her. 

Luis Chiesa

Thanksgiving Turkey

Every year close to 300 million turkeys are raised for slaughter in the United States. Over 45 million are eaten on Thanksgiving. Nearly all of them spend their entire lives with little or no room to spread their wings. Most of them are bred to gain incredible amounts of weight which often leads to heart attacks and broken limbs. As a result, they are given inordinate amounts of antibiotics just to say alive. There is no justification for doing this to millions of sentient beings. This Thanksgiving we should do the right thing. Let’s say “thanks, but no thanks” to that turkey meal. Try one of these faux turkeys instead.  

Luis Chiesa

Advocacy, Rights, & More Dilution of Language

I want to say a brief word about animal rights.  Or rather I want to say a brief word what they are not about.  The media often brands advocacy organizations opposing the mistreatment of nonhumans as “animal rights groups” regardless of the groups’ actual purpose or philosophy.  For example, here discussing opposition to the proposed “euthanization” of thousands of wild mustangs, the Washington Post lumps the American Wild Horses Preservation Campaign (among others) under the rubric of animals rights groups.  The AWHPC is an umbrella organization for 45 groups, most of which are far more concerned with horses not dying than with the nature and scope of horses’ moral or legal claims.

Furthermore, the WaPo also tells us that Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire oilman, T. Boone Pickens, intervened and pledged to save the horses.  I feel confident opining that Ms. Pickens does not consider herself an animal rights activist.  My guess: she just likes horses.  Not being animal rights-oriented doesn’t make Ms. Pickens a bad person or the AWHPC a bad organization anymore than not being a pear makes an apple a bad fruit.  They are just different.

I intend to write more about how animal advocates of all stripes as well as the causes they champion get routinely marginalized through this type of careless rhetoric.  If animal rights are to mean something, they cannot mean everything.  Codifying what animal rights do mean, however, is a post for another day.

David Cassuto

Update, March 2009: It is not looking good for the Pickens-funded sanctuary.

Should Animal Advocates Have an Official Position on Abortion?

Some animal advocacy groups contend that “just as the pro-life movement has no official position on animal rights, the animal rights movement has no official position on abortion“. It is easy to see why there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and believing in animal rights. As Peter Singer has suggested, the typical argument against abortion goes something like this:

It is wrong to take the life of an innocent human being,

A human fetus is a human being,

Thus, it is wrong to kill a human fetus

Given that the point of departure of this argument is that human beings have a right to life, embracing it in no way commits you to affording similar rights to animals. Therefore, it is undestandable for pro-life groups to have no official position regarding animal rights. Is it also understandable for animal advocates to have no official position regarding abortion? I’m not sure.

Someone committed to animal rights would oppose the killing of animals by arguing something along these lines:

It is wrong to kill an innocent sentient being

(Most) animals are sentient beings

Thus, it is wrong to kill (most) animals

It seems to me that embracing this argument should commit us to opposing the killing of sentient fetuses. It does not commit us, however, to opposing the killing of non-sentient fetuses. If sentience is what entitles beings to rights, it follows that – all things being equal – killing a sentient fetus is wrong, whereas killing a non-sentient fetus is not.

Some animal advocates have attempted to avoid this conclusion by pointing out that abortion presents a unique moral issue because it entails balancing conflicting interests. While it is true that the sentient fetus has a right to life, it is also true that the mother has a right to make decisions regarding her own body. When faced with such a conflict, we can either let the mother decide whether to have an abortion or let the state decide which interest should prevail. Regarding the latter, the state might decide that the interests of the fetus (almost) always trump the interests of the mother, that the interests of the mother (almost) always trump the interests of the fetus, or that the conflicting interests should be balanced differently depending on whether the fetus is sentient or viable. Once the issue is framed in this manner, animal advocates have argued that their commitment to animal rights does not commit them to solving these conflicts in any particular way.

This is problematic because animal advocates are not only committed to the notion that animals have interests worthy of legal protection, but also to the idea that only a few fundamental human interests should trump animal rights. Many people, for example, enjoy deer hunting because it is a family tradition.  In such cases there is a clear conflict between the hunted animal’s interests in life and the hunter’s interest in maintaining his family’s tradition. Most animal advocates would conclude that the animal’s interest in life trumps the hunter’s interests. Similar issues arise in the context of animal sacrifice for religious reasons. Most animal advocates – including my co-blogger David – have suggested (here and here) that the sacrificed animal’s interests should trump the individual’s right to practice animal sacrifice pursuant to his or her religious beliefs.

If animal advocates believe that the interests of animals stem from their sentience and that such interests are sufficiently important to trump a person’s interest in maintaining his family traditions or practicing his religion, can they claim that such beliefs do not commit them to solving the conflicts that arise in abortion cases in any particular way?

Suppose, for example, that a woman decides to abort a sentient fetus so that she can fit into a new dress. If religious considerations and family traditions do not trump a sentient animal’s right to life, what interests may the mother invoke in order to trump the vital interests of a sentient fetus? At the very least, it would seem that an interest to fit into a new dress will not do.  It could be argued that saving the life of the mother may justify killing the fetus. It would seem, however, that few other interests would justify engaging in such a course of action. Can animal advocates hold otherwise without calling into question the principles that undergird their commitment to animal rights?  

Luis Chiesa

Hot Off the Email: National Institute for Animal Advocacy

I know nothing about this organization.  Can anyone fill us in?

NIFAA:  Because the most important factor in how a lawmaker votes on legislation is whether it could lose him or her Election Day votes

NIFAA:  Because grassroots organizing and political groups that endorse candidates are KEY to winning strong laws for animals—and teaching us how

NIFAA NEWS:  Election 08

Dare to Imagine What Politics Can Be

Democrats Win Through Grassroots Organizing

1   Prominent animal activist elected to CT statehouse using NIFAA how-to book

2   What we must learn from November 4—statement by NIFAA president, author

Julie Lewin

3   NIFAA how-to book spurs new political groups for animals in towns, cities, counties,

states around the US

4   NIFAA launches new

5   Bill Clinton quotes NIFAA’s how-to book on national TV

6   Our acclaimed how-to book,


Why and How to Launch a Voting Bloc for Animals in

Your Town, City, County and State

—and the simple steps it takes to do it”

David Cassuto

More Art, Animals & Politics

Another friend of mine just turned me on to The Animal Lounge , where artist Jane O’Hara blogs about animals and art.

David Cassuto

Some Pro-Animal Guerilla Art

I learned from a friend of mine about this exhibition.  Apparently the exhibit is closed but the website is well worth a visit:

The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill

Guerrilla artist Banksy has opened his first official exhibition in
New York. The fake pet shop aims to question “our relationship with
animals and the ethics and sustainability of factory farming”.

Where: No. 89, Seventh Avenue South, Greenwich Village, NY
(Between West 4th St. & Bleecker St.)

Subway stop: Christopher Street

Dates: Exhibit closes 10/31/08

Related coverage:

David Cassuto

The Ethics of a Spay/Neuter Policy

While the societal benefits to the spay/neuter movement seem eminently clear, I remain vexed about the ethical issues it raises. For example, this law in Dallas requires those wishing to keep an animal unaltered or “intact” (n.b.: some in the human anti-circumcision movement refer to themselves as “intactivists”) to obtain a permit. Even acknowledging the serious problems that result from unchecked proliferation of domestic animals, is it not still patent human arrogance to require a permit to let an animal retain its bodily integrity? Can we effectively address one social ill by encouraging another?  And is the animal cause advanced by such compromises?  These queries seem part and parcel of the larger incrementalist vs. abolitionist debate.

David Cassuto

Presentation on Animal Cruelty Offenses in Chicago

John Keene – founder of the informative “Cruelty is a Crime” blog – asked me to announce a presentation on animal cruelty offenses sponsored by the Alliance Tackling Animal Crimes that will take place in Chicago on Sunday, November 16. I encourage all Animal Blawg readers residing in the Chicago metro area to attend. It sounds like a great event and admission is free! 

Luis Chiesa

Abusing Animals and Language

Reports of animal abuse at industrial operations are so frequent that they attract less and less notice.  This recent abuse of pigs at an Iowa swine facility, revealed through a covert PETA video is but one of many such tragic instances.  And, of course, the facility reacted with shock and sadness that such events could and did occur at their operation, dedicated as it is to humane practices and a zero-tolerance policy with respect to abuse.  And, perhaps we should take an equally jaundiced view of the fact that some of the people allegedly involved in the abuse continue to work at the facility (see this story in the SF Chronicle).

I wonder if it is because I am so jaded and weary that a good part of my outrage stems from the fact that such facilities can call themselves “farms.”  When language degrades, behavior is swift to follow.  As our language shifts to accommodate the new realities of the animal industry, we must not lose the battle over the vocabulary used to describe it.

Orwell was right; words matter.  Sometimes they are all that does.

David Cassuto

Animal Protection Laws: Protection for Whom?

I recently read an article about a Belgian man, Wim Delvoye, who tattoos live pigs in China as an “art” form. After completing his tattoos, he has each pig killed, and displays the pig’s skin as art. Additionally, some skins are sold to private buyers, just as painting might be. This operation is based in China, so is obviously not subject to American law. But it is interesting to imagine what would happen if it were.


Delvoye claims the pigs he uses are sedated during tattooing and suffer no trauma. In fact, he says, the pigs suffer less than they would on a factory farm. Assuming we accept his claims, the pigs’ skins are used for human entertainment and profit, but the pigs experience no physical or psychological trauma.


For those of us concerned with animals’ rights, this is a difficult situation to analyze without exploring the underlying purpose of animal protection legislation. While it is easy to give lip service to animal protection laws being in place to “protect animal”, it is difficult to define the meaning of the term “protect”.  Is it to ensure that animals live in relative comfort (no material, avoidable suffering), or is it to prevent all exploitation of animals?  


Surprisingly, many U.S. animal protection laws seem to be rooted in neither a primary goal of protecting animals from suffering, nor a primary goal of protecting them from exploitation. Rather, they aim to control human behavior for the sake of preserving morality and decency; avoiding offense to others. In other words, they are arguably more for the sake of humans than their purported subjects! Twenty-one states enshrine at least animal protection statutes in legal chapters titled “Disorderly Conduct,” “Offenses Against Public Order,” “Crimes Against the Public Morals,” “Crimes Against Public Health, Conduct and Sensibilities” and so on. It seems we suffer from confusion about who our animal protection laws are meant to serve.


Furthermore, many of our animal protection laws are constructed not around animals’ needs, but with an eye to how animals can advance human interests. Rather than assessing the evolutionarily-rooted needs and desires of individual species (birds crave flight; fish want to swim), then applying these needs to individual animals, we examine each animal we encounter from the perspective of how his owner intends to use him. Depending on the function the animal serves, we assign him to a category of other individual animals serving that same function (meat production; biomedical experiments; human companionship; fur production; circus entertainment, etc.). We then give each category a set of corresponding rights. This system allows us to declare, for example, that animals in fur farms have no legal right to protection from inclement weather because their purpose to humans is in making fiber, whereas companion animals (generally dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and birds) possess a legal right to protection from inclement weather because their purpose to humans is one of companionship.


Our short-sightedness is quickly revealed when we are confronted with an overlapping category, such as a duck (normally classified as either a “wild” animal or a “food” animal) kept as a companion animal. Under many states’ animal cruelty laws, a duck used by a human being for companionship is entitled to legal protection, while a duck used for food in a factory farm is not. In fact, successful state animal cruelty convictions have involved animals of a species that is often used for food (such as chickens, sheep and ducks) who were abused while kept as a “companion,” making them eligible for legal protection. Thus, what the law giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other. In many cases, an animal’s fate is sealed by the role it is expected to play vis a vis humans.


Clearly, our animal protection laws are schizophrenic in their reasoning and application. This is because we allow them to reflect what we expect animals to do for us rather than what we are willing to do for them. Perhaps it is time to rewrite our laws and see where this takes us.


-Suzanne McMillan

Memphis Police Department Commits More Resources to Combating Animal Cruelty

Fox News reported today that three officers of the Memphis Police Department (MPD) have gone through training to more effectively investigate animal cruelty cases. These officers will “take the case, gather evidence properly, do the interviews properly, just like any criminal matter, so when we get to court we have a good solid foundation.”

The MPD decided to adopt new measures to deal with animal cruelty cases after a sickening case of animal abuse fell apart because it hadn’t been properly documented by the investigating officer.  A local animal rights group – the Anti Cruelty Task Force of Memphis – is hopeful that the MPD’s renewed commitment to investigating animal cruelty will lead to the more effective prosecution of animal related offenses. More about it here

Luis Chiesa

RSPCA Report Measuring Animal Welfare in the UK

According to a report released today by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), concern about animal suffering in the UK has increased substantially over the last couple of years. David Bowles – the RSPCA’s head of external affairs – believes that the findings of the report  “are extremely impressive as they show that the plight of animals is a hot topic at the moment”. Visit the RSPCA’s website here for more information.  

Luis Chiesa

Egg Production in a Post Proposition 2 World

Will the passage of California’s Proposition 2 lead to an increase or decrease in egg production? The answer is not obvious. Some animal advocates contend that egg consumption will increase because the public will feel better about the way that egg-laying hens are treated in the post Prop 2 world. If this turns out to be the case, Proposition 2 will not meaningfully reduce animal suffering.  On the other hand, the spokesman for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) recently stated that “[t]he impact of Prop. 2 is pretty obvious…[w]ithin a few years, it will be impossible to find California eggs in stores.” If the CFBF is right, Proposition 2 will not only improve the conditions of confinement of egg-laying hens but also significantly reduce the amount of hens raised for egg production.  For the reasons that I fleshed out in my reply to Francione, I’m inclined to believe that egg consumption will not change significantly as a result of the passage of Proposition 2.  Who’s right? Only time will tell.

Luis Chiesa

Tribal Animal Law

I often tell my students that all law is animal law and cite a laundry list of legal disciplines — from matrimonial through constitutional to support my thesis.  We then spend the semester reading cases that run that gamut.  However, I had never included tribal law in that list, nor have I ever taught a tribal law case in animal law.  I think that is about to change.   Next semester I will teach Animal Law at Fordham.  This is both my first time teaching there and the first time Animal Law has been taught there (the course description is not particularly accurate) and this case, dealing with the waste from industrial poultry operations being dumped into the Illinois River and whether the state of Oklahoma or the Cherokee Nation has standing to sue, looks like a useful example through which the class can study the complexities of bilateral animal issues as well as its intersection with environmental law.  More about it here.

David Cassuto

The Enviro vs. Animal Advocacy Conundrum

It has often been said (by me) that environmentalists and animal advocates have more in common than in conflict and that we should subordinate differences in favor of working together on issues of shared concern.  However, that ideological and practical overlap need not and should not preclude a thorough discussion of underlying philosophical differences.  In the spirit of starting such a dialogue, I offer the following hypothetical scenario.

A fragile and unique island ecosystem is imperiled by the recent introduction of a non-native, voracious and prolific snake.  The snake likely arrived as a stowaway on a ship and has quickly multiplied, preying largely on native birds.  The bird population has plummeted and several species face imminent extinction.  As a result, the entire fragile web of life on the island is under severe threat.  It may not long be able to withstand such a serious and permanent perturbation.

What to do?  One could attempt to extirpate the snake.  Doing so would involve deciding that the survival of the ecosystem is more important than the lives of the snakes and acting accordingly.  This approach amounts to sacrificing individuals for the perceived greater good.  But since when did ecosystemic health become the greater good?  With respect to our own species, we have been known to sacrifice individuals for cause in times of war or other national imperative but have we ever done so (or would we) for the greater good of an ecosystem?  Unlikely.  For example, even if it became clear that the only way to avoid cataclysmic climate change for the entire planet were the immediate elimination of a small percentage of the human population, I calculate the odds of any such deliberate extermination to be zero.  We just don’t do that when the lives at stake are human. (In the interest of simplicity and brevity I am ignoring the myriad issues of international law and cooperation implicated by this example).

Furthermore, in my climate change example, anthropogenic causes clearly underlie the catastrophe.  By contrast, in the island snake illustration, the doomed actors (the snakes) are faultless.  They arrived as a result of human carelessness, have no way of leaving, and, having been involuntarily relocated, must now eat to survive.  Granted, the ecosystem faces irreparable harm as a result of their presence but ecosystems are dynamic; they constantly change and adapt to changing conditions.  Why should thousands of innocents die to preserve the island’s current ecological state?  Would we take similarly drastic measures to stop “natural” evolution on the island if it threatened the birds or another part of the island’s ecology?

Let’s complicate the example still further.  Assume that the snake’s native habitat has been destroyed and that it (the snake) no longer exists anywhere else.  How do we balance the equities now?  The integrity of the ecosystem must now be balanced against the continued survival of an entire species, not just an aggregation of individuals.

Three possible options suggest themselves, none of them good:

1)      Do nothing – either by design or inertia.  This would amount to “letting nature take its course” even though the course itself was laid by human activity.  Risks include the extinction of native birds, a resulting ecosystemic collapse, and, if the snakes cannot find another food source, their eventual demise as well.  Of course, it may be that none of this will occur; the island’s ecology may shift and all (or at least most) of the island’s residents might find a way to co-exist.

2)      Extirpate the snake.  Assuming such an action were successful, it would render the species extinct, a matter of no small ecological import.  In addition, the act of eliminating the snake might itself cause irreparable and devastating harm to the island’s ecology.  And, of course, killing thousands of sentient beings in the name of the grail of environmental integrity remains fraught with all sorts of ethical baggage.

3)      Introduce another dynamic force into the ecosystem (i.e. a predator of the snake).  Such an act will necessarily cause great perturbation within an already teetering ecosystem and its efficacy cannot be predicted.  Furthermore, even if it succeeds, the consequences may be equally severe.  Who knows what will happen once a new predator species is established on the island.  It may decide to prey on something other than the snakes and/or once the snakes are depleted, it may find itself forced to prey on native fauna (much like the snake did).  Plus, isn’t the predator species just a proxy for humans?  Are we not still the ones killing the snakes?

Which of the above options would an animal advocate choose?  How about an environmentalist?  Can the categories of people be so neatly delineated?  Can any proposed solution be termed more ethical than another?  Even a brutal utilitarian calculus does not seem to yield any easy solution.  In addition, how do we account in that calculus for the fact that the snakes (and/or the birds and/or the entire ecosystem) will be punished for our mistakes?

I don’t have any answers for any of this.  Please chime in with your thoughts.  Part of my aim here is to show how the categories of “environmentalist” and “animal advocate” can sometimes complicate more than they explain.  People of one stripe or another may find themselves lining up on opposite sides of where they thought they might be or where their ideological comrades reside.  To me, that reality demonstrates the need to eschew identity politics in favor of redefining the ethical landscape in a way that better acknowledges complexity and encourages collaboration.

David Cassuto

Animals: Persons, Property or In Between?

In mid-October, I attended the annual Animal Law Conference at Lewis and Clark Law School. Hearing panelists Steven Wise and David Favre address animals’ legal status as property made me excited to share some of their points, as well as my own thoughts, with you.


In the United States, animals are classified as property for legal purposes. Hence, they are defined as “chattel” rather than “persons”, which is the other main category. This is relevant for purposes of standing. This may sound logical enough. However, we must ask ourselves whether we are adequately serving our animal brethren’s needs by maintaining this construct and, if not, how it might be changed.


Suits filed in tort often revolve around harm done to an animal: someone’s dog run over; someone’s cat negligently handled by a veterinarian. The fundamental incentive to file a suit of this sort is the harm done to the animal. However, the animals can’t bring their own action. Now, this is not altogether preposterous. It seems logical to draw a line at the notion of an animal filing suit in court, seeing as animals as property, and therefore cannot have interests. However, standing rules being what they are, no one is allowed to bring suit for an animal, unless a statute specifically allows for private citizen suits. This is where our system beings to falter. With humans unable to sue on behalf of animals, they do the next best thing… sue on behalf of themselves! In the great charade that has now become common, a human can get into court by showing that he/she has suffered an injury that’s directly traceable to something that happened or is happening to an animal, and that a remedy us available which, by helping the animal, would in turn the human. The entire basis of the suit is the suffering experienced by the human. The animal is a mere vehicle through which the human’s needs are met. In fact, it may well be that, should the human win the suit and the remedy be applied, the animal’s suffering will continue, as a remedy is not necessarily a guarantee of full liberation for an animal, but sometimes merely an improvement in his or her condition. Animal Legal Defense Fund, Inc. v. Glickman, 154 F.3d 426 (Fed. Cir. 1998). For humans who only brought such a suit as a circuitous way of helping an animal, this defeats their entire purpose.


So what is there to be done? One possibility is to convince courts to reinterpret the standing doctrine to allow property to gain standing. Animals could then be represented by legal guardians, as children are. This seems unlikely. The second is to reformulate the category in which non-human animals (or at least some species, playing certain roles) are placed. This seems much more likely and, in fact, has already been done in various courts. In 1979, the Civil Court of the City of New York, Queens County, declared that “a pet such as a dog is not just a thing” because it has the ability to not merely receive affection, but to return it to its owner. Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc., 97 Misc. 2d 530 (N.Y.C. Civ. Ct. 1979).  State Supreme Courts have not gone this far, but they have grappled with these questions. In 1997, Vermont’s highest court found that certain dogs have “a lot of emotional value but [not necessarily] a fair market value of any significance” and therefore, “modern courts have recognized that pets generally do not fit neatly within traditional property law principles.” Morgan v. Kroupa, 702 A.2d 630 (Vt. 1997). And in 2001, Wisconsin’ Supreme Court stated in Rabideau v. City of Racine, 627 N.W.2d 795 (Wis. 2001):


At the outset, we note that we are uncomfortable with the law’s cold characterization of a dog, such as Dakota, as mere “property.” Labeling a dog “property” fails to describe the value human beings place upon the companionship that they enjoy with a dog. A companion dog is not a fungible item, equivalent to other items of personal property. A companion dog is not a living room sofa or dining room furniture. This term inadequately and inaccurately describes the relationship between a human and a dog.



So it appears that the judicial climate in this country is ripe for setting a new precedent regarding animals and property status. Two large questions loom: which animals would be elevated beyond the property paradigm, and what new status would they assume?


One troubling pattern emerging is that courts only seem amenable to the idea of an individual animal being something other than personal property when that animal is owned by a human being and, in return, provides that human with positive experiences such as love, affection, attention and protection. By this standard, the only animals qualifying as non-personal property are “pets”. Interestingly, since 2000, a national and Canadian movement to change our terminology from “pet owner” to “animal guardian” has gained significant ground. Citizens have taken this cause to their city and state legislators, bringing about new city and county codes and ordinances and even state legislation declaring pet owners to in fact be “animal guardians”.  To date, at least 15 cities, two counties and one state have passed such laws. These laws do nothing to inherently alter the legal status animals, but it seems likely that they will contribute to judicial opinions in years to come, as well as make legislatures more amenable to expanding animal protection statutes.


As far as what new status non-property animals could assume, a likely solution is a middle-ground between personhood and property. At the animal law conference, David Favre presented his suggestion for a category of “living property”. Under this paradigm, animals would own themselves, to a limited degree. This would allow them standing in court (through a guardian, similar to a child guardian, acting in the child’s perceived best interest). Creating this category would involve dividing the property at issue (the animal) into two components: legal and equitable. The holder of the legal title (the human owner) would transfer her title to the equitable portion to the animal himself. I encourage you to read the nuances of Professor Favre’s argument in a law review article devoted to this fascinating idea. David Favre, Equitable Self-Ownership for Animals, 50 DUKELJ 473 (2000).


Finally, some readers are surely questioning this conversation’s relevance. Why, they may ask, are we discussing how animals can enforce their rights when they have no rights? In fact, many animals are rights-holders. They have various federal and state statutes protecting their interests: everything from not being kicked, burned or mutilated to not being harassed.;  Not all animals are granted all rights: rights are doled out based on where an animal lives, what species that animal is part of, who owns the animal, and the individual animal’s role or purpose to his owner(s). Nevertheless, many individual animals have clearly-assigned rights ascribed in the letter of the law, and it is a travesty to offer rights to a class of beings without offering a feasible method of enforcement. And so it is entirely relevant and, I dare say, necessary, to determine how these rights are to be upheld. In fact, this is a conversation that is long overdue.


-Suzanne McMillan

Announcing the Humane Research Council’s Free Online Resource Database of Research Studies relating to Animal Issues

I encourage animal advocates to access the Humane Research Council’s (HRC) database of research studies relating to animal issues. I recently received the following e-mail from Katrina Munsell – the HRC’s Project Director – exaplining the benefits that animal advocates may reap from accessing the database:


Greetings Prof. Chiesa,

I came across your writings on your new Animal Blawg, and I thought you might be interested (both for your blog and your academic work) in a free online resource database that my organization, the Humane Research Council, provides to academics and animal advocates for their important work. is a FREE online database of nearly 1,000 important research studies relating to animal issues and public opinion, including topics like Advocacy Strategies, Animal Experimentation, Companion Animals, Farmed Animals, Vegetarianism, and Exotic Animals. Each database citation provides an abstract and summary of the research study and, in many cases, access to the complete document and/or a link to the original report.

Here’s what some of’s users are saying:

  • [] “is unique in providing useful data for the development of data-driven programs to help animal advocates.”
  • “…current and accurate information and the detailed research information is remarkable for anyone working or studying in an animal field.”
  • “Without solid information about public perceptions, we are struggling in the dark to effect change. HRC provides that information and helps animals by leveling the playing field for advocates.”

These comments demonstrate the unique value that provides for anyone interested in animal advocacy. The resource was developed and is maintained by the Humane Research Council (HRC), a nonprofit organization with the mission of empowering advocates and academics to be as effective as possible for animals. feel free to post this message on your blog or forward it to your colleagues, professors, and students who are interested in animal protection issues.learning about!

I personally invite you to apply for access to to achieve greater results for animals. Please also

Thanks for

Thank you,
Katrina Munsell
Project Director
Humane Research Council

Posted by: Luis Chiesa

Some Election Musings

Last night’s election was remarkable for all kinds of reasons, including the passage of California Proposition 2, which outlaws gestation crates, battery cages and veal crates over a period of seven years. Reasonable people can differ over whether the initiative well serves interests of farm animals. However, I think it beyond dispute that the electorate has begun taking a real and lasting interest in issues of animal treatment and welfare. And that (in addition to Senator Obama’s transcendent victory) is historic.

As further evidence of this trend, last night Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 3, which will eliminate greyhound racing in that state by 2010 (more about this initiative here and here). A similar proposition offered eight years ago failed. I see the success of this measure as an unalloyed positive and an encouraging omen.

Overall, last night’s results, as well as those of other ballot initiatives across the nation in recent years, demonstrate that concern over the way animals are treated in industry (both food and recreation) has begun percolating upward within the nation’s consciousness. Even if one believes – as Professors Colb and Francione do – that the California initiative represents a practical step backward, I think the fact that Americans are beginning to care more about animals and act on those concerns ought to present cause for hope. We in the animal advocacy community can differ on strategy and argue about the status and direction of the movement. Perhaps we can all agree, though, that the more people differing and arguing about how best to take these issues forward, the better it is for all – especially the animals.

David Cassuto