The information on this website is not legal advice and is not a substitute for legal advice. For legal advice, please consult an attorney.
One of the basic tenets of animal rights is that animals should be free from human use and abuse. On a philosophical level, abolishing the property status of all animals would be a great step forward in animal rights, because it would make it more difficult, if not impossible, for animal exploiters to continue using animals. On a more practical level, there are important legal reasons, right now, why pets should not be treated as property, so the debate over the property status of animals usually centers around pets.
How Are Animals Treated as Property?
Animal ownership is the right to possess and control an animal, as well as the right to sell the animal. Humans currently have those legal rights. Breeders can sell rats to laboratories to endure all kinds of torturous experiments before being killed. In most states, factory farms can keep veal calves chained by the neck in wooden crates and then send them to slaughter while they are still very young. If someone takes or kills your dog or cat, courts are reluctant to award more than “fair market value” to compensate you for the loss of your animal, even if Fluffy was a beloved family member. Even wild animals are treated as property. As soon as a wild animal is legally killed by a hunter, that animal’s body becomes the property of the hunter.
How are Animals Treated Differently From Property?
To a certain extent, our courts and legislatures recognize that animals are not like other types of property. Anti-cruelty laws protect animals from certain types of abuse and neglect, although there are typically exceptions for industrialized animal cruelty. Unlike a table that you own, you are not allowed to torture, neglect, or destroy an animal you own in an inhumane way. Some states prohibit giving away live animals as prizes, or have restrictions on the sale of pets. Also, courts are starting to recognize the unique position held by pets in our society, and in some jurisdictions, are even starting to enforce visitation agreements in divorce cases. Some states and towns have changed the word “owner” to “guardian” in their laws regarding pets.
Why Shouldn’t We Own Animals?
We don’t legally own other human beings, including our children, and we don’t sell other human beings. There are instances where we control other human beings, such as a parent controlling a child or a guardian controlling an incompetent patient, but these are situations where the child or patient needs care and supervision. On a philosophical level, we should not own non-human animals because we do not own humans, and treating animals differently is speciesist.
Commercial Animal Ownership
For industries that use animals – animal experimentation, farming, fur, circuses, etc. – the right to own, buy, breed, and sell animals and/or their body parts is essential. Of course, from an animal rights perspective, these industries should be abolished.
What About Our Pets?
Contrary to the arguments against this issue, changing the property status of animals does not mean that no one will be able to keep pets. It does not mean that the government or animal rights activists will take everyone’s pets away. But it does protect people with pets because it begins to recognize that pets are family members.
The government already has the right to take pets away from people who abuse and neglect them, just as they can take children away from abusive parents. Changing the property status of animals would not change that fact.
Many animal rights activists have pets; some have a lot of pets. (They tend to be rescues because animal advocates do not want to buy animals and contribute to the pet overpopulation problem.) Animal rights activists would not advocate a change that would result in all of their pets being taken away after they’ve rescued them.
We don’t own our children, but we are their guardians. If animals were no longer considered property, we would still be allowed to have pets just as we can have children without owning them.
Why Shouldn’t Pets be Property?
Courts treating animals as property is one of the problems facing some people with pets. By treating animals as property, they have refused to enforce visitation agreements in divorce cases, leaving one person with no legal right to see their animals after the divorce, regardless of the parties’ agreement at the time of the divorce. In a Pennsylvania case, a judge said that a visitation agreement for a dog is like a visitation agreement for a table or a lamp, and would not be enforced by the court. Because the dog was considered just another piece of property, the husband lost all visitation rights.