Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Human, non-human. Working towards equal rights

Human rights are a subject of nuance, context, and strongly-held beliefs. But what about non-human rights? In many parts of the world including Egypt, Canada, the United States, India and the UK, animals are protected by various anti-abuse laws. In some places, pets are not only physically protected by the law, but they have gained the right to inherit property. An orangutan named Sandra was even awarded the title of “non-human person” after her personal lawyer battled for her right to be freed from her Argentinian owner.

Unfortunately, non-human animals as a group do not have the rights - or the respect, many argue - that humans do, which means that blanket legislation is very much lacking. Tens of thousands of healthy animals are euthanized every week, while the majority of human communities do very little to provide health care and housing. Worse, both pets and wildlife are injured and killed on highways every day by people who don’t even bother to help them or find their families.

Animals still have their champions, however, and they come in many forms. Humane Society volunteers, small shelters, transport coordinators, veterinarians, protesters against animals in research labs and many, many more people have taken it upon themselves to provide care and quality of life to animals in whatever ways they can. In effect, it is as if these people have constructed their own set of universal rules when it comes to non-human rights.

What are animal or non-human rights, and what constitutes abuse?

In the United Kingdom, human-to-human abuse is defined specifically as “any incident…of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour.” There are more specific definitions to cover child abuse, elderly abuse and abuse towards individuals of minority cultures or ethnicities. The United Nations has drafted a 30-point proclamation on the subject of inalienable human rights, although these are not necessarily supported by legislation from state to state.

But what about our beloved pets, and the myriad of wild animals that live among us in towns and cities, or nearby in the countryside? A scattering of laws have been enacted to protect different species and types of animal, however some of these are blatantly disregarded – even by the very governments that enacted them. For example, the Protection of Badgers Act was set in place in the United Kingdom in 1992 to conserve the dwindling population of endemic badgers, only to be counteracted by the controversial badger culls that began in 2013. Similarly, anti-cruelty laws that recently passed in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo have been ignored by the annual proponents of bull fights and slaughter at the El Cedral festival on Cozumel island.

According to The Vegetarian Resource Group,

“Animal rights is the philosophy of allowing non-human animals to have the most basic rights that all sentient beings desire: the freedom to live a natural life free from human exploitation, unnecessary pain and suffering, and premature death.”

In most countries, laws against abuse towards animals are targeted mostly to pets or livestock that are viewed as a person’s property. In other words, abusers may be prosecuted the same way for hurting someone’s pet as they might be for smashing someone’s car windshield.

As for abuse against humans, however, laws are much more heavy-handed. In a child abuse case in the UK, for example, the case is thoroughly investigated before either being dropped or brought before a judge. Victims can receive compensation and be lawfully removed from the care of the abuser, while the person at fault is sentenced according to a very stringent set of guidelines. There is a similar process in all westernized countries, although the definition of child abuse tends to differ in countries like Egypt and India, where girls are subject to female genital mutilation and child marriages. When it comes to human behaviour towards children and other people, cultural definitions have a major impact.

Is the root cause of animal abuse and indifference to animal rights, then, also simply related to cultural definitions?

Tim Rompfer, a caring pet owner living in Cozumel, believes that cultural traditions and world views are the reason the annual bullfights at nearby El Cedral continue despite anti-abuse legislation.

“Deciding whether or not any ideal, law, action or inaction is or is not justified is a subjective experience. I believe it will be up to the culture and the people of Mexico to decide when they will justify the transition from utilizing traditional ideals to adopting the enforcement of progressive laws.”


In 2011, a former stray cat called Tommaso inherited $13 million from his dearly deceased, loving Italian owner. Anna Orecchioni was one of the lawyers hired on behalf of Tommaso, who decided to sign a family friend on as the cat’s trustee. Legally, Tommaso could not administer his own estate, so his trustee agreed to use the cat’s money and land holdings as requested by his owner. This lucky black cat is not alone in his earnings, since there are dozens of documented cases of pets inheriting houses, money and large estates through the hands of a trustee.

A bit rarer is the practise of legally naming pets or other animals “non-human persons” in court, such as Sandra the German-born orangutan. Sandra was sold to the Buenos Aires Zoo where she lived for 20 years before concerned animal rights activists filed a habeus corpus petition on her behalf. The petitioners won over the civil court, who decided that Sandra had been wrongfully detained and was indeed a “non-human person” in need of better living conditions.

Unfortunately for the countless other great apes in zoos and private possession, the decision to grant non-human person status falls into the hands of very individualistic judges in very different cultural settings. Tommy the privately-owned New York chimpanzee, for example, was not granted the prestigious title when his case was presented in court.


Volunteer and foster carer for the Cozumel Humane Society in Mexico, Elizabeth Schneider says “it is impossible to have the same laws [for animals] as we have for humans.” Does this mean she believes that pets, feral animals and wildlife don’t deserve our time and attention? Obviously not. On the contrary, Ms. Schneider believes that a more nurturing, caring role on the part of humans everywhere could help mankind become part of a more well-balanced world environment. She adds, “education is key.”

Through the work of rescue workers like Schneider, the feral cat and dog populations of many towns and cities have decreased sharply. Other rescue workers and support volunteers across the globe have dedicated their time to helping veterinary teams save and rehabilitate non-pet species of birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. During the 2013 and 2014 badger culls in parts of the UK, Badger Army volunteers stepped up to help injured animals as well as to throw a spanner in the hunting plans.

As time goes on, more legal aid groups like the Animal Legal Defense Fund are building their networks so that privately-owned exotic animals and showcase animals have someone to speak for them. More and more foster carers are helping orphaned baby animals to have a fighting chance at life, while donation-based groups like the Humane Society or the Last Chance Cat Ranch are continuously offering medical and foster support to feral animals that have been abandoned or born without homes.

So what is the common thread, the motive that ties all these different animal rights supporters together? It’s simply the alleviation of suffering. Whether vegan, omnivore, rancher or urban volunteer, animal rescuers and carers are tired of seeing their fellow creatures struggle unjustly. In cities and countries all over the world cats and dogs are abandoned by their owners, and wildlife is struck by vehicles and left to die in on the highway. Rabbits and reptiles are placed in the forest to fend for themselves, although they possess no relevant survival skills. So, when the European Union banned traditional battery cages for laying hens, and Hong Kong published specific guidelines on the decent treatment of animals, these were significant events in the world of animal welfare.

As more and more people become dedicated to raising the status quo of the creatures with which they share the Earth, the job of veterinarians, shelter managers and volunteers becomes much easier. And no, perhaps humans and animals cannot share a common set of inalienable rights, but they will benefit from the kindness of people who choose to treat them as respected individuals. In the words of The Vegetarian Resource Group,

“Though it seems impossible for humans always to act perfectly, animal rights activists strive not to hurt other beings.”

Is that really so controversial?


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