People v. Fox

Posted by Chris Berry, ALDF's Litigation Fellow on March 12, 2012

"If foxes and rabbits have rights, then is a fox guilty of murder for eating a rabbit?"

This counter-argument commonly creeps up in discussions about animal rights and poses many interesting questions: if foxes have a right not to be killed by humans then do they have a duty not to eat rabbits? Is the fox guilty of murder for doing so? Do human governments have to police the woods and put foxes on trial who are caught eating rabbits?

The basic support for this line of reasoning is exemplified by the legal maxim “there are no rights without responsibilities.” This maxim is reflected throughout the law – for example, we have the right to enter into contracts but the responsibility to adhere to those contracts; we have the right to drive a car but the responsibility to drive carefully; we have the right to be free from violence but the responsibility not to direct violence toward others. If a fox has the right to be free from violence, shouldn’t it have corresponding duties as well?

All crimes include two components: actus reus (a guilty act) and a mens rea (a guilty mind). Examples of actus reus include breaking and entering, causing death, or taking somebody else’s property. However, these acts must be coupled with a corresponding guilty mental state such as breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony therein, causing death with reckless abandon for human life, or taking somebody else’s property with the intent to dispossess them of it.

Under the English common law, the defense of infancy provides that a child under the age of 7 is incapable of committing a crime. In other words, a child so young cannot be guilty of a crime because they do not appreciate the nature of right and wrong. This rule still exists in the United States though the age of infancy varies slightly from state to state.

The application to the case against the fox is obvious: if a child has rights but is incapable of possessing a criminally guilty mind then a fox may have rights too without corresponding criminal liability. Since by most accounts even the most intelligent nonhuman animals fall below the mental capacity of a 7-year-old child it would seem that animals are not liable for committing crimes even if we grant them some basic rights.

Even if we were to impose criminal liability on animals there are two additional reasons we would avoid such an absurd result as putting a fox on trial for eating a rabbit. First, the fox’s attorney would raise a defense that the fox’s action is excusable because it is necessary for the fox to stay alive. Although killing people is usually considered murder or manslaughter, there are defenses such as necessity (killing another to save many) and self-defense (killing another to protect oneself) that exculpate the killer. It’s unclear that either of those specific defenses would apply here, but it may be appropriate for the court to recognize a predator’s defense since the fox is primarily motivated by doing something good (i.e., survival instead of malice) and has no viable alternative.  

The last reason why giving rights to foxes and rabbits would not lead to People v. Fox is because our courts would not have jurisdiction to hear the case in the first place. Jurisdiction means “power to decide” and is a legal concept that gives court the power to make enforceable legal judgments. One major requirement for a court to have jurisdiction in a particular case is that the government has some interest in the outcome. If a New Yorker assaults somebody in downtown Manhattan then New York courts have an interest in hearing the case since that state’s criminal laws, public order, and residents are affected. However, if a British person assaults another Brit in downtown London then the New York courts would have no jurisdiction to try the case because New York has no interest in the outcome.

The same principle of jurisdiction applies to foxes and rabbits. Even if a fox ate a rabbit on New York soil, that state’s interest in deciding the rights between wildlife is so small that jurisdiction to decide the matter would be non-existent or imprudent. Thus we avoid the absurdity presented by People v. Fox because the fox has not committed a crime and, even if it were otherwise, our courts would be an improper venue to decide a case between wildlife.


6 thoughts on “People v. Fox

  1. Gerald says:

    I completely agree with this.

    My question is, if animals are to have such rights, then why is it not only okay, not only encouraged, but often MANDATED by law to spay or neuter adopted animals? And the “Animal Legal Defense Fund” endorses such laws and encourages others to support them?

    I understand the basic reasoning behind these laws. But it seems like a pretty EXTREME case of government interference into the lives of animals and their companions. It’s really not much better than euthanizing as far as I’m concerned.

    Would you endorse a law that gives the government the power to deny humans the right to bear children, by forcibly sterilizing them, as a way to control overpopulation of humans? After all, for every dog on the planet – including those in comfortable homes – there are 5 humans living in abject poverty.

  2. Annarosa Berman says:

    Thanks for the article; I’m going to save it and use it!

    I would add to the second point, the one that argues that the fox has to kill the rabbit for survival, that unlike humans, who are able to survive and thrive without meat, and therefore eat it by choice, the fox is a carnivore and biologically incapable of surviving without meat. He has no choice in the matter and is therefore in a completely different position from humans who kill for the sake of tradition and addiction to taste.

  3. Chris says:

    Gerald — you raise an interesting argument. However, I see two distinctions that justify spay-and-neuter programs for pets.

    First, just because some rights are given to animals doesn’t mean that all rights should be given to them. The blog post is limited to the right not to be killed or injured for unjustified purposes. While foxes and rabbits should enjoy that right, it is not true that they should enjoy the right to vote. In other words, they have the capacity to feel pain but not to participate in civics. So where does having a family fall in this spectrum? Admittedly, animals do have an instinct to reproduce. However, due to their limited capacities, they do not appreciate the right of familial autonomy to the full extent that humans do and that serves as a distinction that justifies giving one a right to reproduce but not another.

    To whatever extent you are not persuaded by my first argument, I posit a second: that the benefit of saving millions of cats and dogs through reproductive control greatly outweighs whatever minimal benefit cats and dogs receive from reproducing.

  4. Gerald says:

    Chris – sorry, I did not intend my question to be a direct correlation with this article, it is just something that has always bothered me and I never really found a rational outlet for my question.

    I agree that obviously not all rights should extend to animals, especially those that are actually impossible – such as the right to vote. While the right to reproductive freedom might be a gray area – I don’t know that they should have the right to engage in sexual activity at will, for instance – I don’t think it’s a gray area that they should not have their bodies surgically modified for what really amounts to human convenience. I feel the same way about dogs that get their tails cut off for aesthetic purposes, for instance.

    Your second argument is the one I’m used to, but it seems like a bogus argument to me. Isn’t the whole point of spaying and neutering to reduce the number of cats and dogs in existence? How is reducing their numbers saving millions? It MAY reduce the number of cats and dogs that are euthanized, but you’re essentially trading potential future cats and dogs that may live full and healthy lives for existing cats and dogs that have already lived – and probably won’t live longer either way – and I’m not sure it’s an even trade. Is there any data to prove that spaying and neutering programs significantly increase adoption rates for abandoned animals? Or that it proportionally decreases the number of animals that are euthanized relative to the population?

    If there is a significant, tangible, verifiable benefit to the overall animal population, then I might be able to see the wisdom. I just haven’t seen it yet.

  5. joke says:

    Foxes are build to eat the rabit, who is build to run! No weapons involved, just the speed and the teeth. If humans would use their bare hands to fixe their meal, it won’t be a cow, deer, not even a pig. We need tools/weapons/knives for that, so we are not designed to eat so many meat. And when we use those weapons killing a human being, we go to triall, why not when we use those tools on animals.

  6. Chris says:

    Gerald -

    “A generalized population flow model was constructed to be flexible enough to apply to any region and to incorporate the impact of policy options… Using the model structure, a reduction of 46.8% in the percentage of dog owners who do not spay/neuter their animal results in a region with dynamics similar to the New York State Capital Region being able to bring the number of dogs euthanized down to zero. In other words, if about half of the people who do not spay/neuter their animal could be convinced to change this behavior, such a region could become ‘no-kill’ for the dog population. It should be noted that the euthanasia rate used here is the long-term steadystate value. This steady state can take a surprisingly long period of time to achieve.”

    Frank, Joshua. “An Interactive Model of Human and Companion Animal Dynamics: The Ecology and Economics of Dog Overpopulation and the Human Costs of Addressing the Problem.” Human Ecology, Vol. 32, No. 1 (February 2004): 107-130 (available online at http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/animalwelfare/Frank_interactivemodelhuman.pdf).