Dalhousie SALDF Advocates for Legal Personhood for Animals

Last spring, the Dalhousie University Schulich School of Law Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) chapter, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, hosted a free public film screening of the film Unlocking the Cage, followed by panel discussion on legal personhood for animals. The chapter even lived tweeted the event (#AnimalRightsAreCivilRights).

Unlocking the Cage is a 2016 documentary featuring attorney Steven Wise and his legal team, the Nonhuman Rights Project. Using scientific evidence from primatologists, Wise argues that we are morally obligated to grant limited personhood rights such as bodily liberty and integrity to cognitively complex animals in order to protect them from abuse. The panel after the screening included Wise, Gloria Grow, founder and director of the Fauna Foundation, and Dr. Mary Lee Jensvold, primate communication scientist. The panel was moderated by Schulich Animal Law Professor Vaughan Black.

The panel centered on the discussion of animals as legal persons rather than as legal things. Wise emphasized the necessity of changing the legal status of animals as a prerequisite for a meaningful advancement of animals’ interests. As long as chimpanzees and other animals are seen as legal things, their only protections are the ones we decide to give them. This is why animal welfare laws, which permit the continued exploitation of animals, cannot adequately protect animals. If corporations and rivers can be legal persons, why not animals?

The event was topical given increasing public engagement with the issues animals face when they are held in captivity. Bill S-203, the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, is currently before the Canadian Senate and Lucy, the elephant who is the subject of a lawsuit against the Edmonton Zoo for her cruel treatment, still wallows in isolation. The Dalhousie SALDF chapter hoped the event would inspire an interest in those who are first learning about animal law and encourage animal advocates to continue fighting the good fight. During the panel, Grow emphasized the importance of changing the public’s opinion on how we use animals. She credited the recent victory of chimpanzees no longer being used for biomedical research in Canada to a change in public opinion based on phone calls, letters, and other activist initiatives.

The chapter served plant-based food at the event, which was generously supported by the Animal Legal Defense Fund through a SALDF project grant. Many, if not most, attendees were not legally trained and appreciated the explanation of the legal processes, arguments, and concepts such as personhood and the writ of habeas corpus, and how they relate to animals. With over 250 attendees, an abundance of positive feedback, and a recap of the event on the school of law’s website, the event was a huge success.

Unlocking the Cage is one of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s recommended films to screen in the 2016-2018 SALDF Program Guide: Captive Wild Animals. If your chapter is interested in hosting a screening, please sign up here and email Student Programs Attorney Kelly Levenda for help organizing and promoting the event.

This student chapter spotlight was submitted by Kacie Oliver, president of the Dalhousie SALDF chapter.

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