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The rough road to animal personhood

Edited by dronon as of 00:39
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Max undergoing surgery.
Max undergoing surgery.
Beaks are extremely important to birds, allowing them to hold objects and feed themselves. One can easily imagine the problems that a blue and gold macaw named Max experienced, when his beak was pulled off after two fights with other birds. Human caretakers helped him eat again, and when his remaining lower beak grew too long, they regularly shortened it so it was the right size for his tongue.

In search of a long-term solution, a South African team of veterinarians, doctors and other professionals led by Prof. Gerhard Steenkamp worked together to design and attach a 3D-printed beak for Max. As has been previously covered on Flayrah, many other animals have also received prosthetics when they've needed them.

(I use the term "animal" here purely for simplicity, meaning "non-human animal". Biologically, humans are as much animals as macaws, dogs, lizards and frogs. The distinction between them is purely cultural, and I can recommend Richard Dawkin's essay The tyranny of the discontinuous mind for further details.)

The example of Max, and others, shows us that humans can care about specific animals and are willing to devote a large amount of time, money and effort to improving their quality of life. While this is admirable, not all animals receive such treatment. In other situations, animals are seen as disposable goods, notably when it comes to food production.

Eating animals is a practice fraught with issues. Meat tends to be less healthy than plant-based food sources, is the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in food production, contributes to a large decline in the population of wild mammals, and there are serious ethical concerns related to killing and eating our fellow sentient beings. For some, the lesser intelligence of animals compared to humans justifies their use. Others take after British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who wrote:

The question is not, "Can they reason?" nor, "Can they talk?" but "Can they suffer?"

Indeed, a recent survey of nearly 1800 Western philosophers revealed that only 48% considered it permissible to eat animals or animal products under ordinary circumstances. This represents a large shift in the way that we treat animals, and this stance is not confined to academia. Proposed legislation in the UK recognises that even crustaceans and molluscs are sentient, and seeks to outlaw cruel practices such as boiling lobsters alive.

Distribution of mammals on EarthPerhaps the biggest problem facing the world today is anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change. It is well-known that farming animals for meat is a major source of greenhouse gases, and shifting our diet is one of the simplest and easiest steps to combat climate change. One of the proposed remedies to our food emissions is to farm insects for protein. However, there is growing evidence for insect sentience as well, and some scientists are concerned that if insect farming were to become commonplace, current misconceptions could lead to large-scale violations of insect welfare. The need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is urgent, but we should not do so at the expense of our fellow sentient creatures.

When animals are farmed for food, they exist as a means for humans to acquire nutrients. Kantian ethics states that humans should only be seen as an end in themselves, and not as the means to an end. As society has shifted from a discussion of animal welfare to a discussion of animal rights, the question has been raised whether animals should also only be treated as an end. Viewing animals as ends would mean that they have intrinsic worth, existing regardless of the instrumental value that they provide to humans. An important requirement for respecting the intrinsic value of animals is to recognise they are sentient beings with their own thoughts, emotions, memories and desires. In legal terms, this could be accomplished by recognising animals as persons.

While the idea of recognising animals as persons may strike some as absurd, it is not unheard of. In 2013, India said that dolphins and other cetaceans should be seen as non-human persons. A year later in 2014, an Argentinian court declared that an orangutan named Sandra should be recognised as a person, and ordered her release from the Buenos Aires zoo. No English-speaking country has gone this far yet. When the question arose concerning a female elephant named Happy, held in captivity at the U.S. Bronx Zoo, a New York judge dismissed giving her personhood.

The story of Happy is not over yet, as the Nonhuman Rights Project, who filed the lawsuit on her behalf, will be taking it to the New York Court of Appeals. One thing has changed since the original case. In Colombia, animals are permitted to sue. Due to legal proceedings surrounding Pablo Escobar's escaped hippopotamuses, this resulted in a federal U.S. court recognizing the animals as "interested persons". Two attorneys have pointed out that this does not mean that their status under U.S. law has changed. Despite that, it may help influence the result of Happy's case.

Regardless of the outcome of Happy's legal situation, there is an urgent need to rethink our relationship with animals. Despite copious scientific data showing that animals are sentient, can use tools, transmit culture, have morals, and use basic language, many humans still treat them as the mindless automatons René Descartes declared them to be in the 1600s. It is necessary that society moves forward to our current understanding: animals are more complex than we give them credit for, and that they, like humans, possess intrinsic value. This applies not just to those species that have traditionally been seen as pets, but also to those that have traditionally been seen as food.


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One of the most interesting aspects of the anime Brand New Animal was when the avian hybrids noted they did their best to fight to be recognized as 'persons', but when they finally won that fight it had unintended consequences. They could no longer fly over the boarders of countries unimpeded by the bureaucracies that those who had to utilize the mechanical planes were forced to utilize.

In essence, they assumed being considered legally a person would lead them to freedom, but it actually took away freedoms that they already when they were legally defined as animals.

Similarly, while we look at animals in cages, humans are also in cages. But there are no bars. They are defined by words and concepts rather than physical implementation. And those that can't follow those concepts, well then they get to find themselves within a system more geared towards the physical form of restrictions.

What I'm trying to say is while this article does lean on 'why don't humans treat animals with the same dignity they treat humans', it ignores a simple question: 'do humans treat other humans with dignity?' It's hard for me to see "us" treating non-humans with dignity if "we" are unable to do that to our fellow congnites.

Or in short, the infographic above I find to not be quite accurate. If humans comprise 34% of the Earth's biomass, then the amount of asses that comprise the biomass must be far greater than 1%.

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I haven't seen that.

Could there be unintended consequences? Sure. Though I hope we would be able to see what does and doesn't make sense and not worry about birds flying over borders. (Although I also think humans should be able to freely cross borders.)

Humans don't always treat other humans well, even in principle, but I think it would be a mistake to wait until they do before trying to improve conditions for other organisms.

As a small aside, I like this exchange in Mary Poppins:

Bert: Let's sit down. You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don't like to see any living thing caged up.

Jane: Father in a cage?

Bert: They makes cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped some of 'em, carpets and all.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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I fear many of the freedoms furry artists and story writers now possess may be curtailed should animal personhood become a widely-accepted premise. This is not just in the sense of society acceptance of works such as Maus and Animal Farm, where animals are used as a metaphor for races or stereotypes. Not being "people" means they're far less likely to be subject to laws around the world specifically covering depictions of fictional people in, say, pornographic or violent content - just as zoos face no charges for false imprisonment, but rather must ensure a reasonable level of animal welfare. In short, to protect our porn from prosecution, we must ensure that that animals - including furries - always remain less than human in a legal sense.

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Which animals can use basic language? Which animals can "transmit culture", and what is meant by this? In which countries is legal personhood based on the ability to use language or transmit culture?

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Aww, if you're asking that it means you didn't listen to my talk from earlier in the year ( I discussed some examples there.

When it comes to language, I'd divide into two categories, animals using human language and animals using their own language.
In the first category, several animals have learned human languages to a certain extent. Some notable examples would be Alex the African grey parrot who learned to understand and speak English. He only had a vocabulary of around 100 words but showed conceptual understanding. Then Koko the gorilla was taught to use sign language and had a vocabulary of 1000 signs and understood 2000 English words. Chaser the border collie is another example which was covered here on Flayrah ( She knew over 1000 words, understood nouns as categories, showed inferential reasoning (really neat video of her with Neil de Grasse Tyson and all sorts of cool things. There's even commercial products ( to help pets communicate and there will be future studies on whether they are scientifically valid.
It's not just learning human languages, there's evidence that some animals may have their own versions. I mentioned that dolphins seem to have names which they can use to address specific individuals and bats actually have quite complex communication and researchers were able to listen to the recordings and learn who was saying something, what the context was, who it was directed at and what the response would be. So there's a lot of specific information in a bat's chirp.

Culture is essentially a learned behaviour which is then transmitted in a group. It's different from instinct and it becomes specific to a group, so it's purely environmentally determined. It was covered here on Flayrah with a group of dolphins that were sponges in a unique way and teaching it to members of their pod ( The other example I used in my talk concerned bonobos. Briefly, there were two groups that interbred and lived in overlapping areas but they group-specific hunting behaviours which fit the definition of culture.

I don't think any countries base personhood on language or culture specifically. I doubt any have actually made any particular attempt to define it at all. It's more a case of humans are persons and there's been an assumption that other animals are just not. There's an unfortunate history of disregarding animals as though they are mindless and sometimes they are treated as objects in the legal system. That's been improving but we've hardly fixed all the issues.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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I mean, I didn't even know you were on YouTube, so no, I'd never watched it. (And if you had posted it here, well, it happens to fall under two categories of things I tend to ignore on here: real-life animals, and embedded/linked video essays.)

Most people are familiar with Alex and especially Koko. However, the academic rigor behind their training is undeniably lacking, with Koko's caregiver's publications in particular being criticized for the influence of the handlers on both the elicitation of the signage and the interpretation of what she was communicating. (Look into Nim Chimpsky for a great example of how this can happen, or Clever Hans for a famous one.) Alex's caretaker stopped short of calling his communication and vocabulary language, and as far as I know, there hasn't been any publication referring to Chaser's vocabulary as anything more incredible than working memory. But any one of these animals could publish an epic novel in perfect Cantonese and it wouldn't mean these skills, or any legal status argued on the basis of them, could be generalized to all animals or even all members of their species.

It's more a case of humans are persons and there's been an assumption that other animals are just not.

You seem to think this is an arbitrary distinction, but ultimately the point of legal personhood is anthropocentric - it's about managing our own concern with ourselves, how we relate to each other. This is why there are legal persons who don't have language or that aren't even human at all. You agree above that it "doesn't make sense" to subject birds to the same restrictions humans are subject to, but fail to realize that the exclusion of birds from concern about these things is what we already have. Give animals "personhood", and we shuffle everything around to accommodate this, and in the end we still have to come up with a legal distinction between human and non-human animals.

And for what? What do you expect this will really accomplish for them? Clearly that they won't be allowed to be eaten or milked anymore, based on the fact this article makes more arguments about meat-eating than it does about animal personhood, but this seems like going the long way 'round.

There are other issues you haven't addressed here. When animal agriculture goes essentially immediately bankrupt because they have a huge cost of care for animals and now no income, are the cattle and chickens and what-have-you all going to become wards of the state to ensure their welfare? How will the sudden food crisis be managed? Will I have to get power of attorney over my cat to get her spayed, or if she needs to be euthanized? What is my cat going to eat? Are animal breeders going to run afoul of anti-eugenics laws?

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There's criticisms about all sorts of things. The point is that Alex and Koko are not exceptions but just well-known examples. I'm not saying that there's not still work to be done but that the reasonable interpretation is that language is not a human specific trait. What I think is also worth baring in mind is that these experiments are not done after screening hundreds of animals, they are done with whatever animal they have available. There's no reason to think that Alex or Koko or Chaser is exceptional. They are likely average. That's why it will be really cool to see how things advance as this becomes a more accepted paradigm with things like FluentPet ( or Parrot Kindergarten (

I would say perhaps less anthropocentric and more speciesist. Even if you have different rules for different species it shouldn't be a human and non-human distinction. What is good for a wild pigeon is not what is good for a cat which is again different to what is good for a an endangered tortoise on an island. We need to lose the idea that humans are special and recognise that humans are just one part of the natural world. We need less of these arbitrary categories and a more granular view of the world.

I haven't addressed every issue at the end there. Some of those are good issues and ones that are worth discussing. Inherent in most of them is the idea that a non-human animal is an object that exists for human purposes and may be modified for human benefit. There are interesting discussions to be had but I think those are questions about the practicalities of a more equal world, whereas we are still at the stage where we need to get acceptance for that world.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

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Rakuen, virtually everywhere already has different laws and protections and considerations for different nonhuman species. And you already know this. You seem to be thinking that a concept legally distinguishing humans from other animals must have some corollary, but categorizing other animals isn't the point of the concept. Because it's about humans.

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Speaking of which, Spain just passed new legislation!

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About the author

Rakuen Growlitheread storiescontact (login required)

a scientist and Growlithe from South Africa, interested in science, writing, pokemon and gaming

I'm a South African fur, originally from Cape Town. I'm interested in science, writing, gaming, all sorts of furry stuff, Pokemon and some naughtier things too! I've dabbled in art before but prefer writing. You can find my fiction on SoFurry and non-fiction on Flayrah.