The Standing Conundrum

Gillian Lyons


One of today’s hottest debates in the field of animal law is the status of animals as property. (For more on one aspect of this property debate- take a look at Gary Francione’s Animals as Property.)  To my mind, one of the most important aspects of this debate is how this current property status can hinder individuals from taking legal action when they see private citizens abusing or neglecting their pets.

Volunteering for an animal law attorney this semester, I’ve come to realize just how complicated this issue is. If you see animal abuse or neglect- can you achieve a legal remedy? The answer is yes- sometimes. Reading Cass Sunstein’s article Can Animals Sue? (in the book Animal Rights edited by Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum) he acknowledges that there are three circumstances where a human can protect animals in the federal court system: when the human seeks information about animal welfare, when the government failure to protect animals inflicts a competitive injury on the human plaintiff and when a human visits or works with an animal that is threatened with illness death or harm. My question is, if you don’t fit neatly into these three categories and you witness animal abuse, can you take legal action? As things currently stand, you can’t- unless the animal is considered your property or you can convince your local government to pursue criminal action (which quite sadly, would be quite difficult in most of the country.) This is because, as things stand, you would be hard pressed to convince a court that you have the injury-in-fact needed for constitutional standing.

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