Yes, animals have rights

March 26, 2017

Should we allow local governments to poison stray dogs?

Yes, animals have rights

Do animals have rights? If so, what are the limits of these rights? Can we speak of animals as being possessed with certain fundamental or constitutional rights? These questions, and issues flowing from these, are keeping me occupied these days.

The answer to the first question is (perhaps) easy, even if in a roundabout way. The latter questions, and the ones flowing from it, require nuanced debate. Even if individuals are convinced of what the answers are, the broader society will push back with serious questions -- and these merit debate since confronting questions is the only way to achieve progress in a democracy.

Disclosure of interest: I represent civil society activists in multiple petitions, pending before Honourable Lahore High Court, relating to animal rights. The purpose of this piece is of course not to influence the cases I am arguing but to invite public debate on questions that affect all of us.

Yes, animals have (some) rights -- even if these are premised on the worldview that human beings owe certain duties to animals. These duties or rights (whichever you believe comes first -- and this in no small way then affects the broader discourse) are at least partly identifiable in law.

For the purposes of Pakistan there is a law that prohibits cruelty towards animals (Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Act, 1890). This law defines an "animal" as "any domestic or captured animal". It prohibits, among other things, beating or otherwise subjecting any animal to unnecessary pain or suffering. It penalises overloading of animals (with a fine, albeit miniscule -- PKR 50 -- as well as a jail term that may last up to a month). Killing any animal with unnecessary cruelty is also an offence punishable with a fine (capped at PKR 200) and this may be coupled with a jail term of a maximum of six months.

Religious sacrifices are exempted from the reach of this law. However, it should not be ignored that almost all major religions that talk about sacrifice of animals lay down certain rules -- these range from the age of the animal, to its health, to the manner in which a slaughter should be performed etc.

Baiting or inciting animals to fight is also a crime -- although there is a problematic loophole in the law that, arguably in legally unsustainable vague terms, allows inciting animals to fight "if such fighting is not likely to cause injury or suffering to such animals and all responsible precautions are taken to prevent injury or suffering from being so caused."

Can we, or should we, allow local governments to poison stray dogs by the hundreds (if not thousands)? What rights do they need to save them from poisoning? Will we recognise inherent dignity of animals or will our view of animals be linked to how they affect human conduct.

Who decides that fighting will not cause injury or suffering? Is it even possible to not cause injury (a term that must include mental/psychological injury) or suffering (a far broader term than injury) when one incites an animal to fight? These are some of the questions before Honourable LHC in a petition.

But the purpose of this piece is not to comment on individual cases but the larger question of how animal rights are perceived by people and states across the world.

Animals are living, breathing and sentient beings. They feel suffering along with physical and mental pain -- you do not need to be a pet-owner or animal lover to know this. Studies focusing on animal behaviour and animal psychology leave no doubt about this.

From a religious standpoint, Islam and other major religions speak about ensuring sanctity of all life, of not being cruel to God’s creations and being kind to all that exists around us. In law -- as a friend reminded me in 2011 in a way I will never forget -- we grant rights to corporations (they do not exist in corporeal or concrete form) so why are living beings such as animals excluded from the purview of these rights?

Decades ago we recognised no environment related rights and some decades ago in many corners of the world, women, those without property and those not white had little to no rights. Will those alive a century from now balk at our treatment of animals?

Some, perhaps understandably, fail to absorb the idea of animal rights because of the lack of discourse. So a usual reaction one gets when broaching the topic is a dismissive laugh from a friend who will say: "let’s get human rights sorted first". But that argument is a non-starter. Just because all human beings cannot have all rights, we do not deny the enforcement of rights in the favour of some -- be they black, white, men, women, children, differently abled or otherwise. And this argument cannot begin with the "human form" because our laws and courts protect the environment as well as heritage sites.

A right in favour of a particular class cannot be denied enforcement just because all classes or everyone within that particular class may not benefit. This is, of course, without prejudice to the problem of recognition of particular rights (including the issue of how far rights go) and the corresponding issues with enforcement of those rights.

There is also the argument that once you grant animals certain rights, where does it stop: will we, the argument goes, then argue that animals can enter into contracts? Well, of course not. Recognition of some rights does not mean that all rights must be considered -- discourse, law and policy develop incrementally and one need not be intimidated by consequences not even in the offing as an excuse for refusal to act.

Consider further: lack of capacity or ability to consent to form certain legal relationships (such as contracts) has never been a basis for denying certain fundamental rights, flowing from the idea of sanctity of life, to human beings. So why deny animals some rights merely because consent for a contract is trickier to decipher? Or is the argument, as indeed some have suggested, that there is something sacred (actual or perceived) about the "human form" itself -- and that, and nothing else, is the sole explanation for granting rights to a person who is born in a vegetative state, cannot move, think etc. versus a living, breathing, fairly intelligent animal.

There is also the idea, passionately debated by academics and leading thinkers, that the focus should be on animal welfare -- instead of invoking the idea of rights that animals possess. Others like to oppose this, for good reason one might add, and push the envelope.

As Amartya Sen reminds us in The Idea of Justice: while pursuing justice it makes sense to adopt the reduction of injustice as the principal aim rather than arguing that the enterprise of justice’s sole aim is the creation of a perfectly just society.

Some exciting litigation in different corners of the world has raised the argument that animals, or individuals on their behalf, can approach courts of law. How far are we as a society from those days? Can we, or should we, allow local governments to poison stray dogs by the hundreds (if not thousands)? What rights do they need to save them from poisoning? The British introduced a law against animal cruelty (while mistreating humans of course) because they, allegedly, did not want society to be brutalised. Will we recognise inherent dignity of animals or will our view of animals be linked to how they affect human conduct. What is the trade-off as far as humans are concerned? Will, or should, our approach be human centric or animal centric?

The discourse on this question need not be stunted by worries about lack of enforcement of rights that may be recognised.

All of these are questions of seminal importance. And these, at the very least, deserve a serious conversation. Religion, constitutional text, statutory interpretation, philosophical debates all have a place in this conversation. So why delay it?

Yes, animals have rights