Monday, May 25, 2015

(Legal) Standing on All Fours: Animals in Modern Courts

The role of animals in the courts has changed slightly since Pigs were murderers sometime in the Middle Ages, but that does not mean that animals have stayed out of court since. For this blog post, I wanted to examine some other recent cases in which animals were the focus of a court ruling, and see if there was any connection that could be drawn to the readings, in terms of how animals were viewed in terms of the law.
            The most notable example to come out in recent years was the “Monkey Selfie” case which was decided in 2014. Back in 2011, a wildlife photographer traveled Indonesia to take photos of crested macaques. In the process, one of the monkeys took one of the cameras, and somehow snapped  a picture or two which could be identified as a “selfie.”[1] Wikipedia, who one would think would be an unlikely target for legislation, became the defendant in a copyright lawsuit after they posted the macaque’s photo on their website. Slater sued, claiming that the photos were in fact his, and that Wikipedia could not post the image for free without payment or requesting the photo from the him. . The Wikimedia company argued that the photos were in the public domain, as they were taken by the macaque, and macaque’s are not subject to copyright protection.[2]
Shortly after the controversy, and shortly before the case were to be brought to court, The U.S Copyright Office released an updated version of their Compendium of U.S. Copyright Office Practices, which governs what is and isn’t considered to be copyrighted material. In it, they specified that “Copyright law only protects the fruits of intellectual labor that are founded in the creative powers of the mind.” Among the items which is declared outside the bounds of copyright included murals painted by elephants, patterns occurring in stones or skins, and, in what was certainly not coincidence, “a photograph taken by a monkey.”[3] Meanwhile, law in the UK and Indonesia both illustrated that only a human creator of content could receive copyright protection. With this distinction made by the Copyright Office and with other laws internationally, the case was ultimately never brought to court.
So if your dog ever plays fetch with your selfie stick, know any photos taken are in the public domain.

What about examples in court? In a paper written by Cass Sunstein at the University of Chicago Law School, Sunstein examined in what cases animals would have legal standing to challenge their mistreatment, and in what cases humans would be able to raise a challenge on their behalf. Obviously, an animal cannot walk into a courthouse and file paperwork, as thumbs and the use of utensils are prerequisites for filling out said paperwork. But what about representing an animal, or its interests? As it currently stands, one could not, for example, represent a wounded bear in suit against a hunter. For one to have standing on behalf of the animal, a presumptive plaintiff must show three things. First, that an injury of some sort (physical or mental) has occurred, second, that it was the result of a defendant’s action, and third, that the problem would be redressed by a ruling in the plaintiff’s behalf.[4] If, say, a company’s polluting a riverbed and killing fish, a fisherman could have standing if they can demonstrate that the conditions have changed to the point that their annual fishing trip can no longer be undertaken.
            That requirement of a personal, human effect has often been the focal point of arguments on standing. In one case, Animal Lovers Volunteer Association v. Weinberger, the plaintiffs sought to enjoin aerial shooting of goats on a military enclave for which public access is unavailable. The court held that standing was unavailable because the members did not visit the enclave hence lacked any concrete injury. On the other hand, in Japan Whaling Assn. v. American Cetacean Soc., the court held that the organizations, who were dedicated to whale watching and the study of whales, had standing, because the legislation they challenged would have allowed greater whale fishing and, thus, removed opportunities to study the animals.[5]
            None of this is to say that animals have the same legal protections as, say, a mailbox or fence. In 2012, a California court ruled that pets, at least, are fundamentally different than other forms of property. California’s Second District Court of Appeals ruled that an aggrieved party was entitled to compensation greater than just market value for an injured animal. Unlike if a guitar or furniture was broken, the loss or injury to a domesticated pet would be greater, tied to emotional distress and other factors.
            Obviously, we have come a long way from Pigs being on trial. Now, with animals lacking legal standing, we don’t see animals trotted to the gallows. But as humanity has become more environmentally conscious, we face a new series of issues. As Duke Philip the Bold of Burgundy had to grant petitions of pardon,[6] different officials must decide the fate of animals in court. Today, though, the rule of law is strictly human, and the right to trial is strictly human as well. We may very well argue the idea of “Animal Rights,” but in terms of the courts, all rights start with standing, and animals do not have standing now, and may never. Someday, societies may look back at our relationship to animals as barbaric, in the same way we look back at pigs on trial and scoff. But for now, we live in a world in which humans can only protect animals, and only when they themselves have been harmed.

- Jeramee Gwozdz

[1] Jeong, Sarah. “Wikipedia’s monkey selfie ruling is a travesty for the world’s monkey artists.” The Guardian. August 6, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015
[2] ITN. “Monkey photo not photographer’s, claims Wikimedia – video.” The Guardian. August 7th, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015.
[3] Chappell, Bill. "Who Owns A Monkey's Selfie? No One Can, U.S. Says." NPR. August 22, 2014. Accessed May 24, 2015.
[4] Sunstein, Cass. “Standing for Animals.” Chicago Public Law and Legal Theory. The Law School, The University of Chicago.
[5] Sunstein 18.
[6] Dinzelbacher, Peter. “Animal Trials A Multidisciplinary Approach.” Journal of Interdisciplinary history, Vol. 32, No. 3 (Winter, 2002,) pp 405-421.


  1. "But for now, we live in a world in which humans can only protect animals, and only when they themselves have been harmed." This is true--but you are, of course, talking about humans protecting animals from within human structures. Animals can still harm humans physically, with or without human laws! But your comparisons raise interesting parallels. I am particularly struck by the question of copyright: Luke raises the question of culpability in the medieval animal trials. We tend not to think of animals being bound by human moral expectations, and yet, the monkey selfies raise the question of whether animals can exercise creativity in the same way that human beings do. Perhaps what this comparison shows is not so much a change in the way in which human beings bring animals into human legal structures as a change in what human beings (at least in modern Western societies) care about: do we care more about property and creativity than we do morality? RLFB

  2. I would be cautious of saying that animals cannot have legal standing in a courtroom. While an animal will never be able to sue someone or be sued, they can, in some contexts, attain a legal status that a court must decide upon. In a couple’s suit, for instance, a court can rule which party will get custody of the dog. While the dog itself isn’t a party to the suit, it still has a legal status that can be determined by the court. The court’s decision may even be determined by the dog’s behavior, that is, which partner the dog shows a preference for. It’s not simply an asset that the court must allocate, but an active participant in the court proceedings. These sorts of decisions are a recent development, naturally, as animal rights movements gain more influence. Several readings pertaining to animal trials pointed out that the legal standing granted to animals didn’t simply make them vulnerable to human cruelty as EP Evans believed, but also suggested that they had certain rights. If there are legal executions of pigs or oxen, there must be extralegal executions as well. Perhaps the expansion of legal rights for animals is a cyclical thing, as the legal rights of animals disappear and reemerge.