​What will happen after animals are legally recognized as persons?

orcasby George Dvorsky

The first real attempt to see chimps legally recognized as persons may have failed, but it’s an historic case that undoubtedly represents the first of many to come. It’ll only be a matter of time before chimps and other animals are no longer seen as mere property, but rather as subjects worthy of legal protections. Here’s what we can expect once that happens.

To be clear, we’re not talking about positive rights, or so-called “claim rights.” Animals, even when designated as legal persons, cannot enter into contracts, vote, or carry a credit card. Nor can they be held accountable for their actions. It’s similar to the special status held by children and the severely disabled.

Instead, this is an issue of negative rights in which individuals are granted special protections, like being free from undue confinement, physical and psychological abuse, experimentation, and being put to death. As Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project has noted, it all boils down to habeas corpusthe right to bodily autonomy. Needless to say, the repercussions of granting personhood rights to certain animals will be extensive.

A Blow to the Entertainment Industry

Expanded personhood laws will put an end to many well-established practices. Dolphins and orca whales will be removed from aquatic theme parks, and elephants and great apes will no longer appear at zoos or circuses.

And assuming an eventual “trickle-down” to other species, it’s possible that horse racing may likewise come to an end. Indeed, of the major thoroughbred racing events (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup) half of them have seen lethal breakdowns since 2005. Dog racing, and possibly even dog shows, could be impacted as well.

An End to Animal Experimentation?

It’s also possible that we’ll see the end of medical testing on great apes and other species. It’s a trend that, even before the instantiation of personhood laws, is largely under way.

Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health decided that nearly all of the 451 chimps currently held in government research facilities are to be retired from active duty and relocated to federal sanctuaries. Moving forward, chimps will live in groups that contain no less than seven members, along with a minimum 1,000 square feet of space to move and climb. They will also be given outdoor access in all weather conditions, and opportunities to forage for food and build nests. In some cases, owing to psychological trauma, some chimps will be rehabilitated using any number of means, including anti-depressants.

Similar measures will likely be put into place once animal personhood laws hit the books.

In regards to who should pay for and take care of these animals, the state may be asked to chip in and help. But it’s fair to say that those responsible for the animals should be held accountable, namely the firms and institutions who used and abused them in the first place. Interestingly, some lawsuits may be launched after the designation of legal personhood status in search of reparations.

According to the NIH’s new rules, over a dozen research projects will face closure over the next few years, but three projects will be allowed to continue — projects that address immunology and infectious diseases. It’s very likely that research in hepatitis C and other diseases will be allowed to progress; no other animals, say scientists, provide a useful model for this kind of research.

No doubt, halting all research on chimps makes a lot of people nervous. This is why 50 chimps will be maintained in a colony should their services be required by NIH labs in the future. This contingency has likely something to do with the threat of a pandemic or other health emergency. Researchers want to ensure that reliable test subjects can be called upon in a crisis situation.

So, even after nonhuman animal personhood becomes a thing, it’s doubtful that a court, in virtually any country, would not enforce the ban on animal testing during a serious outbreak. Assuming alternative testing measures are not put into place, animals will lose the rights we’ve secured for them. As long as we’re their patrons, they’ll be at our mercy. Legislation, like personhood rights, will be conveniently ignored during times of extreme crisis.

As for other consequences, medical testing on mice and other “lower” animals will be sure to increase. Until monkeys are granted the same level of protections, they’ll be subject to increasing experimentation. And in fact, there are already calls to create genetically modified monkeys that mimic human psychological and behavioral problems, including schizophrenia, autism, and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. More optimistically, a ban on (most) research animals will subsequently result in better computer models to approximate biological and neurological processes. Nonhuman animal personhood could actually accelerate research in this area.

The End of Livestock?

Some have warned that other-than-human animal personhood will create a slippery slope in which other animals will have to be recognized as well, including livestock animals like cows, chickens, and pigs. There may be some truth to this, but we have to go where the science takes us. And if we should find that these animals possess the requisite faculties for legal personhood — traits like autonomy, the sense of self, awareness of others, mental time travel, and complex problem solving — than we will have no choice but to recognize them as legal persons as well.

It has been said, for example, that pigs have an intelligence similar to dogs. As recent research has shown, dogs are as emotional and conscious as human children — and we most certainly recognize children as persons deserving of many rights and protections.

Should livestock animals be prohibited — a radical prospect by any measure — there are still ethical ways in which we could still produce meat, dairy, and eggs. Lab grown meat holds tremendous potential, for example. More conceptually, we may eventually bioengineer livestock to be devoid of conscious awareness; with no sense of subjectivity, and ruled completely by autonomous behaviors, these animals would completely lack the capacity for suffering. We’d still have to consider the environmental impact of factory farming, but that’s another story.

A Prelude to Uplift?

Lastly, there’s the speculative issue of animal augmentation, or uplift. Once we start designating certain animals as persons, we may be obligated in a Rawlsian-social-justice sort of way to share our biotechnologies with them. But this will have to be done delicately and ethically, and without humanizing these animals. They may value other traits, like increased physical, communicative, and empathetic abilities rather than, say, logical intelligence.

Why might we be obligated to do this? If we can say that a nonhuman person is lacking in traits that would further their ability for self-actualization and self-determination, and we have the means to help them with this, it may be incumbent upon us to assist them in that regard.