Souls On Board

Stephen O’ Donohue


grace_hudson_flyingDenying rights to animals has long been rationalized by the presupposition that animals lack consciousness, awareness, feelings, and last but not least, a soul.  While scientific studies provide a plethora of data supporting the argument that animals are aware and do feel, science admittedly falls short of being able to prove or disprove the existence of any living being’s “soul,” regardless of religious groups’ varying definition of the term.  Furthermore, one of the fundamental limitations of the United States government is the separation of church and state.  For decades, however, the U.S. government has, through the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), promulgated a definition of the word “soul” that does not include animals.  When declaring an emergency, the pilot in command is asked by the controller for the amount of fuel and number of “souls” on board the aircraft.  The FAA, in an Advisory Circular in 2008, defined “souls on board” as the “total number of passengers and crew” to the exclusion of animals because they are “cargo.”

Aviation likely borrowed this practice from the maritime culture, and the FAA probably adopted “souls on board” as a term of art that was standard procedure at the time.  The rationale for needing to know how many living persons are on board a vessel in distress is quite obvious: rescuers need to know how many people to search for in the event the emergency turns into a disaster.  The problem, however, is that it is currently 2012, not 1812, and our government needs to stop defining the term “soul” all together.  I have no idea if animals have souls.  I hope they do.  Even the Catholic Church has a patroned saint of animals, and in 1990 Pope John Paul II stated that “animals possess a soul . . . .”  I’m not saying the Church is right or wrong, but I do strongly argue that the government should not be in the soul-defining business at all.  I acknowledge this practice was adopted through tradition and likely without any intent to deprive animals of rights.  That being said, the FAA has had ample opportunity to remedy this glaring contradiction to the First Amendment, yet as recently as 2008 they reaffirmed this ignorant definition.


In the interest of full disclosure, I hold a private pilot certificate and instrument rating.  My wife and I fly with our two dogs regularly.  I’m not sure how I would reply to “state souls on board,” but I sure hope the first responders would rescue my dogs should the unexpected happen.

2 Responses

  1. Amen!

  2. Tsk, tsk – Animals as cargo. That’s incredibly sad…

    My understanding is that once nonhumans were indeed classified as beings with souls. Once souls were defined as all breathing life – And that spark within us all was Nephesh.

    I figure that the original meaning was altered and corrupted for purposes to diminish the value of other animals… What a perfect place to start the othering process… On something that is not proveable and is invisible. That motivation and ideology seems more “souless” than any of the beings meant to be ousted from possessing that gift.

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