PSU Probing Question: Do Animals Have Legal Rights

(GantDaily Graphic)

UNIVERSITY PARK – Consider, for a moment, the American pet: 171 million dogs and cats share our homes and, as a nation, we spend $41 billion a year on our furry companions. According to BusinessWeek, that’s more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.

But there’s something even the most pampered pet doesn’t have.

“Animals don’t have rights within our legal system,” explains Patti Bednarik, a professor at Penn State Dickinson School of Law who teaches a course on Animal Law. “In the U.S., historically, they’ve always been considered property, and they still are, according to every state and federal law. This means they can be sold, transferred, and sometimes even killed, as long as it is done humanely.”

Bednarik cites monetary recovery for injury to animals as one of the more frequently covered legal topics. Because an animal is considered property, however, an owner can often only recoup the “fair market value” for one that has been maimed or killed. Traditionally, the animal’s sentimental value to its owner isn’t considered important when assessing damages in court. That means, says Bednarik, “I would receive almost no compensation if someone intentionally hurt my dog Trina, though, like many pet owners, I view her as part of the family.”

Even where damages are awarded, she adds, “Legal protection still goes back to redressing the person’s distress or loss. Not the animal’s distress.”

Long an advocate for animal welfare, Bednarik acknowledges that numerous laws do exist to protect animals. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 regulates treatment of livestock during slaughter; the Animal Welfare Act (1966) regulates treatment of experimental and research animals, animals in exhibitions, and animals during transportation; and the Endangered Species Act (1973) protects designated species from extinction, to name a few. “However, problems exist with the laws that we have not being enforced, and there are no real penalties, no fines, for violating certain laws,” Bednarik says.

Being protected by a law and having legal rights are very different concepts, she explains. “I try to avoid the term ‘animal rights’ as it has different meanings for different people, and sometimes people think it means you want animals to have all the same rights as people,” she says. A few rights are clearly inappropriate to offer to animals, she adds with a laugh, as she mentions the right to vote, to own property, and to bear arms.

“However, a basic legal right that I hope will one day extend to other primates is the right to physical integrity,” says Bednarik on a more serious note. “This includes freedom from experimentation without consent. I would argue that at least some species have enough similarity to human beings in terms of intelligence and emotions that it’s not justifiable to treat them as property,” she says.

Meanwhile, Bednarik strives to give students an understanding of all facets of animal law. “You can’t convince some people that animals think or feel at all,” she says. “But I think the more we learn about them, the less we’ll be able to justify their suffering.”

Dawn Stanto, Research Penn State

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  1. Bea Elliott

    Eden Springs… There are many who believe we might eventually recognize a “guardianship” relationship with some nonhumans who can’t otherwise exist on their own… Besides, I think this eventuality is very far into unknown time. I’d say it wouldn’t make much sense to continue eating animals today, simply because you might not be able to “own” a pet in the future.

    Now, as far as directly competing against nonhumans for food — Why we already do this! Farmed animals consume 85% of soy and 75% of corn as it is! And it takes about 10 times the amount of grain to produce the same amount in plant based nutrition… Not very efficient is it? Nor is it sustainable when you factor in the manure lagoons, methane, wasteful use of water and fossil fuels to breed and “process” this flesh… The refridgerated transport trucks, refridgerated “meat cases”…. At home storage, etc. Then the product must be cooked at very high temperatures to make it “safe” to eat. What irony! Compared to the shelf life of dry beans – We can see we won’t be at a disadvantage at all, if we cease breeding animals for “food”. I don’t see a conversion to a world living on a vegan diet done through legislation, but rather through necessity and common sense.

    And as far as third world countries go… As it is a billion people already starve due to the fact that we fatten farmed animals rather than distribute grain to those humans…

    This idea you have that animals would be “voting” is absurd and meant as a scare tactic, aimed at those unfamiliar with what the real intention of “Animal Rights” is. We all share one common thread – Whether cat, pig, man or frog… We all value our lives equally. Our moral compass has always pointed towards the desire of a just and fair world… Seems like extending that respect to the least among us is consistent with our progress towards “civilization”.

    @KathieK – I’d say that there is a necessity of spaying and neutering “over populated” domestic animals… They’re here due to human negligence and/or greed – Certainly preventing mass killings in “shelters” and pounds is the least offensive choice we can make on their behalf.

  2. Eden Springs

    And down the slippery slope we go! Let’s give animals full legal rights, okay? Will it end their suffering? Well, has it ended OURS? No, because while there are actually enormously pressing things to worry about, we diddle about trying to start some program that will end up with animals either a) suing the Democrats and Republicans over their party logos being slanderous or, b) ACTUAL elephants and donkeys elected to government rather than the stand-ins we currently have running the show.

    And, if you grant animals rights, you can say ‘Bye-Bye!’ to ever having a pet again, visiting a circus, zoo or aquarium, eating meat or any dairy, eggs or honey as well as any type of food produced using those items as ingredients.

    Then, there’s the really tricky part. Since we will then be forced into becoming strict vegans through legislation, humanity will be in direct competition with our former pets and livestock for a limited amount of forage. And, since it will no longer be legal to hunt, trap or otherwise kill the recently emancipated horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and other beasts, WHO decides how to divide those fields of soybeans?

    Does it come down to a vote? If so, we’re screwed because we’re vastly outnumbered (birds are emancipated, too). Is it every man for himself? Or do we let the animals eat first as reparation for the thousands of years of ‘enslavement’ they suffered at our hands?

    What happens to people in third-world countries where there are limited agricultural resources? Who makes these decisions on use and distribution of the few food resources that are left to us?

    Let’s have a serious chat about the end game here first, because the more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like Nazi Germany to me. Little wonder that theirs was the first modern government to legally establish animal rights. Quite ironic that, in the end, the animals had more rights than people. Be afwaid…be vewy afwaid!

    “History never repeats itself, but mankind always does.” –H.L. Mencken

  3. KathieK

    “However, a basic legal right that I hope will one day extend to other primates is the right to physical integrity,”

    So, I am assuming you are against mandatory spaying and neutering of pets, that most certainly is against any “right” to physical integrity as I see it.

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