Should animals have legal rights? 'Happy' is about to find out

Anyone who has had a pet knows that the creature becomes part of the family. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a dog or a cat or reptile, fish, bird or farm animal. These creatures have a way of grabbing part of our hearts and never letting go.

OK, I know, you may not be someone who has experienced that, and you probably think I’m a bit daft. So that’s what divides us, and there are millions of people on both sides.

I’m on the animal side, having grown up with dogs in our family since I was learning to walk. I have the photographs to prove it! Over my lifetime, I’ve had part of my heart shared by almost too many furry creatures to count – dogs and cats and a calf or two, chickens, rabbits, horses and even goats. Beautiful memories and beautiful love shared among us.

I’ll be honest: If I start thinking about some of them, it can bring me to tears – of happiness and sometimes of sadness.

Animal lovers know that we are waiting for the moment the animal speaks to us. And they do, in their own way. I admit, I remember that when I was a child, I used to pray to God asking Him to please have my dog talk to me! I didn’t get that prayer exactly answered, but those loving creatures talked in their actions and looks and how they become part of my life. For that, I am more than grateful.

I never thought much about the legal role of a pet until one of my dogs was lost. I had taken her to the vet for a bath, and when I went to pick her up I was told that she was dead. No reason for the death – just that she was gone. I was devastated but even more so when I learned that the vet had no legal responsibility for my loss. The fact she was a dog with a pedigree, an animal with a high dollar value, made no difference. I checked with lawyers and was told that I could not sue for the loss because dogs were just property and had no “value.”

As far as I was concerned, the vet killed my dog and got away with it. I’ve never forgiven him.

But times are changing, and for that I am thankful. We are beginning to see changes in the legal world that give animals the rights they are entitled to have. This applies to domestic animals as well as those in zoos.

Did you ever wonder about what goes through the minds of those zoo animals we see? There are people who do wonder about that, and in fact, it is a question that will be debated by the New York State Court of Appeals this year. It will address the issue of whether a non-human animal has legal rights – the animal in question being Happy the elephant, at the Bronx Zoo. In legal circles, it is a precedent-setting case.

The case will be argued by attorney Steven Wise. His position is that Happy has the legal right not to be in captivity and should be in a sanctuary where she can be with other elephants with freedom to roam in an open grassland.

According to an article in Best Friends Magazine, it’s a case that may revolutionize how the legal system relates to nonhuman animals.

Wise had his first legal victory in 1980 when he won a veterinary malpractice case on behalf of a woman whose dog died in the vet’s care. The judge agreed with Wise that the dog was not simply a piece of property and that the woman was entitled to more compensation than simply the replacement of her dog.

I wish I’d known him when my vet killed my dog.

Whether or not animals have self-awareness has been the focus over the years, and in fact, it has shown to be true. Chimps, dolphins, elephants and magpies have shows they have “self-awareness, self-determination and a sense of the past and the future.”

According to Wise, the basis of his case before the court is whether we can legally deny the fundamental right to bodily liberty to animals who share cultural attributes with humans. The animals on his list are great apes, elephants and dolphins – they have languages, social interactions and tool use.

An opinion by New York Justice Eugene Fahey shook the legal world. Part of his opinion said, “The issue of whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus, is profound and far-reaching. It speaks to our relationship with the life around us. Ultimately, we will not be able to ignore it. While it may be arguable that a chimpanzee is not a ‘person,’ there is no doubt that it is not merely a thing.”

Wise says the case turns on whether Happy’s imprisonment violates her common law right to bodily liberty.

On the other side of the country, the California Legislature faces a vote on a proposed law that essentially is a bill of rights for cats and dogs. Assembly Bill 1881 lists seven fundamental rights that every dog and cat in the state has. It was introduced by Assemblymen Miguel Santiago and specifies that each animal should have:

  • freedom from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse
  • a life of comfort, free of fear and anxiety
  • daily mental stimulation and appropriate exercise
  • nutritious food, sanitary water and shelter in an appropriate and safe environment
  • preventive and therapeutic health care
  • proper identification through tags, microchips or other humane means, and
  • spaying and neutering to prevent unwanted litters.The bill has a provision that shelters and rescue groups must post the bill of rights or face fines.

There will be further modification of the bill before a final vote is taken.

Ah yes, times they are a-changin’.

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