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When the Law Recognizes Animals as People

SUZANNE MONYAK: ‘Last year, the Illinois state house passed a law that would force divorce courts not just to divvy pets up between their “parents” in a custody battle, but to think about their well being, too. “It sort of starts treating your animal more like children,” says Illinois State Senator Linda Holmes, the legislation’s sponsor. Illinois is only the second state to adopt a law that would consider the well being of animals in custody battles… And while these state laws may at first seem limited, animal rights lawyers say that they are a step forward in the recent push to recognize the rights of animals—not as property, as they have historically been seen in the eyes of the law, but as sentient individuals, entitled to certain rights of their own.

“In the last five years or so, it’s gone from sort of this very fringe area of the law to very mainstream,” said Tony Eliseuson, a senior staff attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Not only could new laws recognizing animals as individuals spread to other states, but they might also provide a precedent for novel interpretations of the law, rippling out into other areas from veterinary malpractice to agricultural and entertainment industries, as activists challenge what they see as inhumane treatment of animals kept in captivity… The idea that animals might have rights of their own is a relatively new one.

For much of the twentieth century, the law considered pets, or companion animals, to be property—akin to a rug or a toaster… [Although] the new Illinois state law… avoids explicitly using the term “sentient”… according to Eliseuson, the law nonetheless has “formally recognized the sentient interests of companion animals and given the power to the court to put the rights and interests of animals ahead of their guardians”—one step closer to recognizing what other countries have acknowledged… All 50 states have laws on the books to prevent cruelty against animals. Even though animals are still seen as property in many states, if someone murders their cat, they could be liable for a felony. This isn’t the case for other kinds of property; you can’t be held liable for hurting a toaster’. SOURCE…

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