Right To Live

Animals as Legal Persons

Mantasha Ansari

Regularly, cruelty against animals is being reported in India. But there is also a growing trend worldwide, as well as in India, to recognise animals as legal persons. On Holi this year, a video emerged in which a dog was tied in chains and in a heartless act of cruelty a man was bombing loads of dry colour into the eyes and face of the helpless animal. The dog could have suffocated and died. Fortunately, it was reported to police who intervened.

In the face of such cruelties against animals, there is now an increasing recognition of animals as legal persons. In 2021, US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recognised animals as "legal persons for the first time in the United States" by permitting a "community of hippopotamuses living in the Magdalena River" in Colombia to introduce a lawsuit in the United States, a foreign jurisdiction, against a Colombian government plan to kill roughly 100 hippos, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) – a non-governmental organisation fighting for animal rights.

In India, in 2019, the Punjab and Haryana High Court ruled that all animals, aquatic and avian creatures are "legal persons." This judgment was delivered in a case in which 29 cows were packed in two trucks for transportation from Haryana to Uttar Pradesh. A bench headed by Justice Rajiv Sharma noted: "All the animals have honour and dignity. Every species has an inherent right to live and is required to be protected by law. The rights and privacy of animals are to be respected and protected from unlawful attacks." The high court also noted that citizens are "guardians" of all animals. It issued several guidelines for animal welfare.

Earlier in 2018, the Uttarakhand High Court, in a landmark ruling, accorded animals the status of a "legal person or entity." A division bench of Justices Rajiv Sharma and Lokpal Singh also noted that all natives of Uttarakhand have a "duty" to ensure the protection and welfare of animals. The justices issued a series of directions to promote welfare of animals, stating: "to protect and promote greater welfare of animals including avian and aquatic, animals are required to be conferred with the status of legal entity/ legal person."

According to a media report, the Uttarakhand High Court also ruled that since the carts driven by animals have no mechanical devices, animal-drawn carriages have to be given Right of Way over other vehicles. The court order, which outlined several guidelines for carts drawn by animals, came in response to a public interest petition seeking restrictions on the movement of horse-drawn carts between India and Nepal.

The question is: Who is a legal person? In jurisprudence, there are two types of persons: one, natural persons or human beings; two artificial persons. The artificial persons are "also known as juristic persons, juridical entity or a legal person other than a natural person." Legal or juristic persons can be created by law and recognised as a legal entity.

Philosophers like Aristotle and John Locke did not evolve their own understandings of animals as legal persons. Aristotle argued that animals are inferior to humans because they cannot reason, and that nature created them to serve human needs. Writing in Journal of Animal Ethics (9, 2019), Jonas-Sébastien Beaudry of McGill University quotes Locke as saying that "a person must not only have various mental states and processes (those processes involved in being a subject of mental states, and processes such as 'thinking,' 'intelligence,' 'reason,' and 'reflection'), but these states and processes must also form a unified whole (the 'same thinking thing'." It's clear that Locke too lacked a view of animals as legal persons.

One must understand that humans too were once animals. "For hundreds and hundreds of years there has been a legal wall that separates all nonhuman animals from human beings. On one side are human beings, but also corporations and other nonhuman entities that are recognised as persons, and on the other side are nonhuman animals, who are defined as legal things that can be owned and are essentially invisible to the law," says Steven M. Wise, an attorney and founder of Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) in the US.

Given the fact that animals are being widely used for laboratory testing and humans too mistreat them frequently, Wise and individuals like him are working for the protection of animals as legal persons so that their rights can be protected, thereby ensuring their welfare. NhRP runs a project which declares: "Humans are not the only animals entitled to recognition and protection of their fundamental rights."

Maureen Nandini Mitra, writing in winter 2015 issue of Earth Island Journal, asks: "We know more about the complex inner lives of animals than ever before. Are we ready to recognise their right to be free?" The movement to accord animals the status of legal persons will create complex issues, such as property rights for them. In the 2014 movie Entertainment starring Akshay Kumar, an old man bequeaths all his property to his dog, thereby creating legal complexities. However, it is also evident that such steps encourage a wider understanding of animal rights and welfare. It is in this context that court judgments like those of Uttarakhand and Punjab and Haryana high courts must be welcomed.

Mitra observes: “[Nature] draws no bright line separating humans from other life. The pleasure or pain or fear that a mouse or a seal or a tiger feels is probably no less intense to it than the pleasure or pain or fear that you and I feel. We don’t need a law to tell us that. In the same way, just because an animal doesn’t have legal status as a “person” doesn’t mean that we have no moral responsibility toward that animal.”

[Mantasha Ansari is a writer based at the University of Lucknow. She can be reached at:]

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Vol 54, No. 41, April 10 - 16, 2022