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Did a court rule that animals are "persons"?
What the ruling stands for. And what it doesn't.
One of the biggest piece of news in animal rights recently was the announcement that, for the first time in history, a US court had ruled that animals were legal “persons.” The headlines, even if a bit snarky, were remarkably positive, helped along by the fact that the case involved hippos smuggled into Columbia by the drug lord Pablo Escobar. (See, for example, coverage at NBC, the Guardian, or the Economist). And this seemed an important victory. Animal rights activists have been fighting for decades to create legal standing for animals. This ruling seemed a huge step in the right direction.
But when I reached out to my friend Steve Wise, the attorney who has led the charge for animal personhood for over two decades, he sent me this blog, which significantly complicated the issue. Wise argues that the legal issue at stake in the hippo litigation was not personhood at all, but rather the much more narrow and technical question of whether the lawyers suing the Columbian government to protect the hippos were entitled to take depositions in the United States.
When I read the judge’s order, I was surprised to see that Wise appears to be correct. The judge’s ruling is a one page statement that says almost nothing about animals or animal rights. The legal briefs filed in the case, similarly, seem to have relatively little argument relating to the fundamental rights of animals. They depend, instead – as Wise asserts – on the procedural question of whether the attorneys in the case are entitled to a deposition. What that means is that the precedent set by the case is of relatively little value, legally or politically, to any future fights over animal rights. If one were to cite the hippo case as an example of a court ruling for animal personhood or rights, a judge or legislator would likely feel duped.
That doesn’t diminish the value of the lawyers’ efforts in the hippo case. It’s a good legal outcome — I’m glad they will be able to depose the experts, and hopefully protect the hippos — but I think there are two important lessons for us to learn. First, we should be careful not to exaggerate the importance of our claims, lest our movement hurt its credibility. Too often, animal rights activists make false claims about the merits of our movement. Thoughtful observers will dive deeper into our claims and dismiss our entire cause if our claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Second, the movement desperately needs more collaboration. The lawyers who argued the hippo case, and subsequently exaggerated the claims of its importance, should have consulted with Wise, who is a legend in the field of animal law, before declaring victory. I would hope that Wise, in turn, would be open to dialogue, and perhaps give credit to the lawyers who did this work, for what they achieved, even if it was not quite what was stated to the media. All sides would benefit from this sort of dialogue and communication; and the movement would come across as more credible as a result.
I’m hopeful we can get there, and will be reaching out to folks on all sides to encourage exactly that sort of dialogue.