The legal status of animalsSeptember 19, 2017 02:15 IST
The monkey selfie case has come to an end, but questions remain unanswered
In 2015, a lawsuit brought by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed that Naruto, an Indonesian crested black macaque, should be entitled to the rights of a self-portrait which the animal had accidentally clicked with the camera of David Slater, a nature photographer. In 2016, a federal court in San Francisco held that while protection under the law may be extended to animals, the same could not be said of copyright laws in which lie vested rights and ownership. PETA’s legal team said it would appeal the decision. Fortunately, on September 12, 2017, both the parties decided to settle the matter, with Mr. Slater agreeing to donate 25% of any future revenue from Naruto’s images to charities dedicated to the conservation of crested macaques in Indonesia.
This dispute once again gave rise to questions about the legal personality of non-humans.
The 21st century has seen many attempts to recognise animals as legal subjects — from granting them protection from cruel treatment, to arguments for recognising them as legal persons and granting them property rights — but there has been discomfort in giving them a plenary membership within the human legal community. Scholars like Benjamin Berger have argued that it is the contrived attempt to treat humans and animals similarly that has obscured our understanding of animals as legal subjects, while moral philosopher Peter Singer contends that the idea of the species divide itself is feigned, and so the moral and legal distinction irrelevant.
A legal personality is usually defined as a subject vested with rights and duties. However, within the parameters of law, it has never been confined to human beings and has even included idols and companies. Strangely, though, the same rationale has failed in courts in its application to animals because of the imaginary distinction between the multitude of species, and their inability to carry on legal duties.
Conversations around ‘legal personhood’ have often been marred by the uncharacteristic merging of ‘justice’ with ‘rights’. The moral and ethical undertones of ‘animal justice’ are largely absent in the arguments around ‘animal rights’. Further, rights can be broken down into formal and substantive rights. The right to appear before the court and plead is different from the right to integrity and equal protection under the law. It is not to say that one has to choose between the two; both are integral to the definition of rights.
The federal court in the Naruto case has merely mirrored the premise that animals can only be objects or properties, but questions regarding the legal standing or legal personality of non-human persons remain unanswered. Ironically, the imperative of granting legal recognition through legal personality reveals both the obscurity and absurdity of extending identities to animals. Even if the courts were to accept limited personhood, we are still left with the reality that the process of recognition is confined to our communities and legal structures. The notion of autonomy and agency of animals will continue to fail. However, the case has pushed us to think over uncharted territories of human/non-human subjectivity in law.
Sakshi is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi