Should Pets Have Their Own Bill of Rights?

A town in Spain recently gave pets their own Bill of Rights. We asked an animal ethicist if other cities should follow suit.

Allegra Ringo

Photo via Flickr user Tony Alter

A few months ago, Trigueros del Valle, a small town in Spain, passed a Bill of Rights for pets. The aim of the bill was to give the town's "animal citizens" the same basic rights as its human citizens. "Dogs and cats have been living among us for over a thousand years," Pedro J Pérez Espinosa told a local newspaper. "And the mayor must represent not just the human residents but must also be here for the others."

The Bill of Rights, which was passed unanimously, contains 13 articles, including statements like "all residents are born equal and have the same right to existence" and "no non-human resident should be exploited for the pleasure or recreation of man." The document defines "non-human residents" as dogs and cats, but could potentially extend to other animals in the future.

While Trigueros del Valle is the first municipality in Spain to pass legislation like this, I wondered if it signaled a shift in the way we regard animals as part of society. I asked animal ethicist Andrew Linzey, who is the Director of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, an "independent think tank for the advancement of progressive thought about animals." Fellows at the Centre research and write about animal ethics, and the Centre is presently working on building a comprehensive archive of writings on animals and bioethics. Linzey is also the author of Why Animal Suffering Matters, which applies principles of philosophy, theology, and practical ethics to the subject of animal rights. In addition, he's written several other books on the subject, and is an editor of the academic Journal of Animal Ethics.

VICE: What do you think of Trigueros del Valle's bill of pet rights?
Andrew Linzey: [It's an] excellent initiative, which has my wholehearted support. I wish that other European countries should follow suit. Incidentally, I think the term "companion animals" is better than "pets" because the word pets can be seen as derogatory. We need a new ethical language to describe animals—one that is consonant with the new burgeoning moral sensitivity.

What do you mean by "a new burgeoning moral sensitivity"?
Moral sensitivity is extending what are largely anthropocentric ethics to include other sentient creatures, notably mammals and birds. It means simply that we must talk not only of caring for animals, but also treating them with fairness and respect—in other words, extending justice to them. This new sensitivity has given rise to organized animal protection movements in almost every country in the world. If you see my Global Guide to Animal Protection, you will see the foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who argues that we should seek justice and protection for humans and animals alike.

Does this new law in the Spanish town represent some kind of shift in the way we, as a society, conceive of animals' moral rights?
It is an important step forward to a more humane world. We are in the middle of a paradigm shift away from the idea that animals are things, tools, machines, commodities, resources for us, [and toward] the idea that all sentient beings have intrinsic value, dignity, and rights.

Do you think other towns will adopt similar legislation?
I certainly hope so. Just think how far Spain has already come. Who would have thought 20, 30, 40 years ago that a region of Spain [Catalonia] would ban bullfighting?

This is the first town to actually pass a bill like this, but have you ever seen attempts at similar bills before?
There have been attempts to recognize that the great apes have rights, which have met with some success, but this is the first declaration by a locality regarding companion animals.

[Editor's note: Several parliaments worldwide now recognize great apes as having "personhood" and extend to them a bill of rights. These bills of rights are a result of the Great Ape Project, an organization that advocates for great apes to have some of the same basic rights granted to humans. Jane Goodall and philosopher Peter Singer are active in the movement.]

Is it important to have legally-protected rights?
Yes. Rights language is simply a way of establishing moral limits to what we may do to them. Sometimes people try to ridicule legal rights for animals by saying that animals shouldn't have the right to vote, or to obtain a mortgage, or stand for parliament. But this, of course, is a gross misunderstanding. First and foremost, companion animals should have the right to be animals, to be free from cruelty, abuse, neglect, and unjustifiable killing. Companion animals give humans so much and yet we treat them so badly: We discard them when we don't want them, or fail to meet their health and nutritional needs.

Which animals should have a bill of rights? Pets like dogs and cats? Or all animals? How do we decide?
Rights for companion animals is a good place to start, because we owe them so much and they give us so much. But I would go further and include all sentient beings—beings that can experience pain and pleasure—basic rights. Just think: We all now regard children, especially infants, as worth of special moral consideration. The rational grounds for this position is that they are morally innocent, vulnerable, cannot consent, cannot understand, and are relatively defenseless. But if these grounds are strong and rational, as I believe they are, they equally apply to sentient animals since they too are morally blameless, vulnerable, unable to understand and consent and are relatively defenseless.

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