Property or Sentient?

By The Ghosts in Our Machine


Clothes, cars, houses, books, computers, cell phones … are examples of property. Animals are defined as property and this is evidenced through global industrial practices such as farming animals for food and for clothing, conducting bio-medical research and product testing on animals, and breeding, training and confining them for entertainment. Animal’s status as property is reflected at the state level around the world. For example, in Canada, laws against animal cruelty appear within the criminal code, under the title “Willful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property” (1). As property, non human animals receive very limited protection. This is demonstrated in the case of Gary Yourofsky, who in 1999 freed fifteen hundred minks from a fur factory. Yourofsky was prosecuted for break, enter, theft and mischief, and ordered to pay restitution to the owner (2). The suffering of the minks was rendered lawfully invisible through privacy laws protecting their owners. These laws against cruelty only identify acts as criminal offences if they cause ‘unnecessary suffering’ to animals. The clause of ‘unnecessary suffering’ also appears in the United Kingdom’s Animal Welfare Act (3), and within animal related laws throughout the European Union (4). In each of these examples what might be considered ‘necessary’ is left open for interpretation, allowing animal interests and lives to be sacrificed for human beings.

Footnotes Accessed March 2011

1. Government of Canada. Criminal Code of Canada.

2. R. v. Yourofsky[1999] O.J. No. 1901 (Ont. Sup. Ct).

3. UK Animal Welfare Act 2006. Provision of Unnecessary Suffering.

4. Animal Legal & Historical Center. European Convention for the Protection of Pets. Animals: Summary


Sentient beings feel pleasure, pain, fear and attachment. Biologically, sentient beings have a nervous system, which allows them to innately experience these feelings. Sentient creatures will seek pleasure, will react to fear, and most significantly, avoid suffering and pain in order to live. Animal rights are based on the idea that non human animals, like humans, are sentient beings, and like humans, non human animals have an interest in preserving their own lives. Activists have long pressed for laws that recognize non human animals as sentient beings. Such laws would recognize that non human animals experience pain and have interests independent of the interests of human beings.Switzerland has come the closest to enshrining such laws (1). In 2008, the country gave separate legal status to all non human vertebrate animals considered “social species” (2). A right to exercise, social interaction, proper food and medical treatment are some basic rights, among many, that have been extended to these animals (3).

Footnotes Accessed March 2011

1. Swiss Federal Veterinary Office. Animal Welfare Report 2009. Pg 5.

2. The Sunday Times. New Swiss Law Protects Rights of Social Animals. Published April 2008.

3. Animal Legal and Historical Center. International Comparative Animal Cruelty Laws. Published 2003.

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