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Kinship Circle Column runs monthly in The Healthy Planet. Ms. Shoss is also a contributing writer for The Animals Voice, Satya Magazine, VegNews, and other publications.


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Uncaged: Legal Rights For Animals

by Brenda Shoss
To subscribe to Kinship Circle Letters for Animals, email:

Overwork, mutilate or kill an animal in California and you face a year in prison and a $20,000 fine. In Oregon aggravated animal abuse is a Class C felony and Missouri's repeat offenders rate a Class D felony. Yet in court an animal is only worth his or her market value. The law views nonhuman beings as property.

"Pain and suffering" allude to the owner's emotional distress, not the animal's. And in what law professor and author Gary L. Francione refers to as our "moral schizophrenia about nonhumans," society feels no regret over laws to exonerate proprietors for the literal torture of animals for flesh, fur, entertainment, or research potential.

If you slit a cat's throat, you are a criminal. Dismember a conscious cow or pig, you are an animal husbandry practitioner. State penal codes pardon animal abuse for the purpose of livestock transport, confinement and slaughter, rodeo and similar exhibitions, fishing, hunting and trapping, wildlife management, and scientific or agricultural research. The federal Animal Welfare Act excuses "necessary" animal suffering and lets owners gauge acceptable pain levels.

Societal ambivalence toward animals is a perennial reflex. For centuries, cultural, religious and economic mores have assigned humans dominion over nonhumans. To endorse beliefs that grant humans superiority justifies the use/abuse of so-called lesser beings. From this perspective, Francione concludes, nonhuman animals are merely a means to our ends.

Many argue that animals are defective: They can't talk, drive cars or vote. But do they have the right to exist in their natural environment and express behaviors that matter to them? Do we withhold legal privileges simply because they don't resemble us? Speciesism, British psychologist Richard Ryder's phrase to describe how nonhumans are denied recognition in the ethical culture, is a discriminatory benchmark similar to race, religion, gender, sexual preference or age.

As a concept, legal rights for animals inhabits the dusty shelves of philosophical speculation. Until judicial and societal paradigms delete the notion of nonhumans as "things," there can be no meaningful reform for animals. Owners will provide only enough care to sustain the function of their animals. For example, the American Heart Association can insert glass fragments into dogs' hearts and drill metal shafts into the skulls of newborn pigs--and claim suitable treatment. From the vivisector's angle, any degree of pain is warranted as long as animals serve research.

But why did the AHA bypass findings from human heart patients in favor of tests shown to produce irrelevant results? With data to validate that animals experience emotion and logic, why do animal studies still receive more funding than humane research alternatives?

Most people simply accept cultural protocol. Susan Finsen, California State University Department of Philosophy Chair and co-founder of Californians for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, believes "that it is far-fetched to suppose that a society which cannot even grasp the moral seriousness of animal rights is likely to be ready to give legal person-hood to animals."

Moreover, the legal system reflects social sentiment and thus cannot initiate a fundamental shift in ethics. Laws to give caged hens or crated calves more living space "fail completely to recognize that animals have any non-tradable interests," Francione says. "There is no empirical evidence that such laws lead to anything more than the irony of reassuring society that animals we exploit are really treated well after all, and there is no need for further moral concern."



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