Animals’ Legal Status

Animals are living, feeling beings — and should be treated as such under the law.

The law should respect animals as living, feeling beings with appropriate legal rights and the ability to enforce those legal rights in court.

Historically, U.S. law treated animals like mere objects and only prohibited abusing animals owned by other people while permitting abuse of animals considered one’s own property. In the 1800s, states began enacting animal cruelty statutes that generally protected animals from needless suffering by anyone — including their owner. Today, all fifty states have an animal cruelty statute that protects the interests of the animals themselves — making it illegal to cause animal suffering because animals should not suffer by human hands.

Despite this transformation in animals’ legal status from mere objects to legal entities with some rights, much work remains to be done to achieve a U.S. legal system where animals are fully respected as living, feeling beings with species-appropriate and enforceable legal rights.

U.S. courts should recognize legal rights of animals that appropriately respect and protect them as living, feeling beings. Many animal cruelty laws include overly broad exemptions that, for example, permit farmed animals to be subject to cruelty as long as it is considered a standard agricultural practice. Courts should also take animal interests into account in proceedings such as custody disputes and criminal sentencing determinations.

Ability to Enforce Existing Animal Protection Laws

Animals’ Rights to Enforce

Courts should recognize that animals have standing to enforce their existing legal rights. The right to be free from cruelty is only as strong as the ability to actually enforce that right, yet government agencies regularly decline to enforce animal protection laws, citing limited resources and conflicting priorities. Usually when a law is broken and the government refuses to act, private parties can secure their legal protections in civil court. However, courts have been hesitant to explicitly recognize that animals have legal standing despite the fact that animals clearly enjoy some legal rights like the right not to be cruelly abused or neglected and can be beneficiaries of pet trusts. This concern is often guised as concern about recognizing animals as legal “persons.” But personhood is not an all or nothing concept — entities like corporations are legal persons with some but not all legal rights that humans possess, and corporations are also property that can be bought and sold. Obviously, animals can have standing or be legal persons without having identical rights to humans or upending animals’ legal property status.

Third Parties’ Rights to Enforce

Animal advocates should be able to enforce animal protection laws in the meantime. As we work to pass stronger animal protection laws, we must also pursue legal precedents and legislation that expand advocate enforcement mechanisms, such as standing provisions for animal protection organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund and concerned individuals to file lawsuits on an animal’s behalf.


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