"Legal Standing" for Animals

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"Legal Standing" for Animals

By Christine A. Dorchak, Esq., President, GREY2K USA
January 2010

Animal advocates are reduced to forcing their circle of compassion into the square peg of an anthropocentric legal system. May they all break through some day. The greyhounds did. The Massachusetts Greyhound Protection Act of 2008 survived a court challenge and then passed overwhelmingly in the next statewide election.

In 2006, the highest court in Massachusetts found that greyhounds are not necessarily dogs, but could also be thought of as "commercial units" forming part of a "well-regulated industry." So therefore, the Supreme Judicial Court reasoned, the ballot question we called the Dog Protection Act was misleading and would not go before voters that year. The greyhounds were struck from the ballot, even though over 150,000 registered voters had signed a petition to put them there. All of these voices were silenced in a few, short pages of a court order.

This is an example of the way in which the peculiarities of legal definitions, rules and standards, or more to the point -- human definitions, rules and standards -- can be used to deprive non-humans of their natural rights to maintain bodily integrity and to be free. In Carney v. Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as in ASPCA v. Feld, the animals could not speak for themselves. And even the signatures of thousands of human proxies did not persuade the justices to give the dogs their day before the voters. Such are the limitations of our current system.

In reading the ASPCA case [AWI Continues Fight to Protect Endangered Elephants from Abuse by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus], I am struck by the length of the court's discussion of plaintiff Tom Rider's testimony. In more than thirty-one single space pages of a fifty-seven page ruling, it describes the manner in which Rider's claims of aesthetic injury were "pulverized" by Ringling's attorneys. One almost feels that the court protests too much .... Though, based on the court's account, it is hard to argue against the fact that Mr. Rider was not a very credible witness. 1) The harm he claimed to suffer (in witnessing use of the bull hook on particular elephants) seemed to develop after he stopped working for three circus outfits and found himself on the payroll of animal protection organizations. 2) He was shown to have used a bull hook himself 3) He could not identify the elephants he claimed to be fighting for when shown videos of them.

The animal advocate plaintiffs claimed "informational injury," arguing that since Ringling was not required to obtain a permit for use of a bull hook (which was represented as a "taking" of animals under the Endangered Species Act), they therefore could not obtain the information needed to educate the public about the cruelty suffered by elephants. The court was not persuaded by this claim,, unfortunately. Only Fish and Wildlife Services has jurisdiction over such permitting, and since the agency was not named in the suit, the court could do nothing to address the advocates' concerns. The court also added that permitting would not give the advocates any more information then they had already gained through litigation. (Talk about circular reasoning!)

Most importantly, the court's findings are notable for their omission of any description of the suffering (or to be more neutral, the standard of treatment) of elephants by Ringling. I did not have the fortune to watch the six-week trial, but contemporaneous newscasts indicated the showing of video and the proffer of other documentation depicting the cruel standards of training, transport and care of elephants by the company. Since the animals could not speak for themselves, these records were their best and only true voices. But these voices did not persuade the court, nor inspire it to apply a broader understanding of right and wrong in its judgment.

And there's the rub. Neither elephants, greyhounds, cats, buffalo nor (you fill in the blank) are "persons" under the law, and they cannot be witnesses, much less parties to human litigation. Instead, animal advocates are reduced to forcing their circle of compassion into the square peg of an anthropocentric legal system. May they all break through some day. The greyhounds did. The Greyhound Protection Act of 2008 survived a court challenge and then passed overwhelmingly in the next statewide election.