Do Animals Have the Same Legal Rights as Humans?

Article excerpt

BOSTON -- A floppy-eared dog takes the stand, fingers his collar for air and with a knowing guilt eyes Exhibit A: a chewed-up shoe.

The caption: "Coming soon to a courtroom near you The burgeoning field of animal law."

The cartoon lampoons Steven Wise's life's work yet it's one of his favorites.

And if the Needham lawyer succeeds in persuading courts to grant animals the same legal rights as people, what now seems farcical could become a fact of legal life.

"I know it's easy to make fun of what I do," says Wise, who doesn't discount the prospect of animals actually testifying in courtrooms.

"It's a good thing, though, I have a sense of humor."

But for the longtime animal-rights activist it's no laughing matter. Neither is it for Harvard Law School. Long a fringe subject, Wise has begun lecturing Harvard law students on animal-rights law.

Wise and attorneys from around the country have recently set out to expand existing laws that protect animals from cruelty.

Through lawsuits and scholarship drawing on scientific developments that show animals have far higher levels of cognition than previously thought, the lawyers are trying to raze the legal wall distinguishing people from animals.

Unlike people, animals are now considered property and have no rights.

But the animal-rights movement has made progress in the past decade.

In 1994, all but six states considered cruelty to animals a misdemeanor and punished it with small fines and short jail sentences.

Today, at least 27 states consider the violations felonies and set fines as high as $100,000 and prison terms as long as 10 years.

Critics of the animal-law movement, which include people in the pharmaceutical industry and livestock groups, often deride animal law as the brainchild of tree-hugging, fur-loathing vegetarians.

They worry that serious legal reforms could wreak havoc on courts, jeopardize medical tests that use animals, and set dangerous precedents that could lead to legal limits on everything from plucking fruit off trees to breathing in bacteria.

"The concern is not so much that a class is being offered; it's just the implications of what is being taught," said Kay Johnson, vice president of the Animal Industry Foundation, a national livestock and poultry group. …

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