Granting animals legal personhood won’t work if we still want to eat some of them

As the law stands right now, animals in Canada are considered property.

The extent of their protection is “unnecessary suffering or distress.” This definition is full of grey areas — how do we define unnecessary? What is suffering? What is distress?

To clear this up, some groups are pushing for animals to be defined as “non-human persons” to prevent abuse and improve living conditions for animals. This has already been used as defense for monkeys, elephants, and dolphins. As much as I love this idea, personhood won’t work to protect animals unless people stop consuming them.

CBC Radio recently did a show interviewing experts in the fields of law and animal rights on developments in the issue of legal status for animals. Maneesha Deckha from the University of Victoria proposes a “model similar to how we think of children today.” But the law does not allow us to eat some children and not others; in fact, eating children is very illegal.

And yet society has a skewed view of animals that considers some edible objects and others intelligent beings. This speciesism is exactly why I’m hesitant to embrace any concept of personhood for animals. If every animal on earth has personhood, is it even possible to grant personhood in a way that allows them to be eaten or otherwise exploited?

If not every animal is granted these rights, it must be decided which animals will and which will not. This is a slippery slope when it comes to cultural differences in respect to animals, as well as the existence of facilities which hold animals in captivity.

Many meat-eaters argue that the hierarchy of animals is based on differing levels of intelligence. Using this hierarchy, is it then argued that we can decide which animals deserve non-human personhood. This becomes shaky at best when you consider the mounting evidence of the emotional intelligence of pigs, which has now been studied pretty extensively.

In an article for The Globe and Mail, Camille Labchuk writes about a couple who adopted a pot-bellied pig named Molly, and butchered and ate her weeks later. People were quick to jump on the couple and demand justice, but as Labchuk points out, they did nothing illegal. They were well within their rights to kill and eat their property. This case is rich in hypocrisy, considering the number of people who were outraged and likely consume pig meat on a regular basis.

Considering the vast majority of the population consumes animals and animal products, my thought is that non-human personhood wouldn’t work because of the fear of it impacting people’s’ ability to consume certain animals. Factory farming operations worldwide are being constantly exposed for their egregious treatment of their animals; these animals certainly need better rights to protect them from living a life of abuse before being slaughtered, but rights of personhood would also somehow need to allow them to continue being killed. This tension can’t really be resolved.

Let me just say I am for animal personhood; however, I am more in favour of any system that will protect edible animals from excessive abuse in factory farming operations. The fact is, personhood for animals is unlikely to be accepted by people who continue to patronize the meat industry. What we need are stricter laws and regulations for animal cruelty.  

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