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Talking Animal Rights and Welfare in Dunedin

With the SALDF Otago group. I'm in the middle with Sue Kedgley MP (left) and Danielle Duffield of SALDF.

Last month, I spent a few days in Dunedin. I was there to give a public lecture at the Otago University Law School: Towards Rights of Nature: The extension of legal personality to non-human animals.

I had the privilege of again speaking alongside Sue Kedgley MP of the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, who has been the sole voice in Parliament for the interests of non-human animals for over a decade. Sue’s final Parliamentary term will end on the 26th of November when she takes a well-earned break from parliamentary politics. There was a strong turnout with about 80 people staying well into the evening to ask questions of us.

My talk centred on the extension of legal recognition to animals in philosophical discourse and in other jurisdictions. After a review of the historical evolution of animal welfare laws, the discussion turned to the treatment of animals as property and its attendant perverse consequences. This lay the ground for the central contention of the lecture which was to look at recognising the worth of non-human nature not simply for its utility to humans but for the intrinsic worth of other living beings. My starting point was Professor Christopher D Stone’s seminal article, ‘Should Trees Have Standing?’ ((1972) 45 Southern California Law Review 450) in which he makes the – in my view very compelling – point that we accord legal personality to corporations and even to ships (when a marine vessel is seized at port for non-payment of excises, duties, etc. it is said to be ‘arrested’) and yet whales, dolphins, cows, pigs – in fact, anything that is not human – are treated as a species of property.

In the 2008 Constitution of Ecuador and the 2011 Bolivian ‘Law of Mother Earth’, this recognition of the intrinsic worth of non-human nature has been officially recognised; extending even to unique ecosystems and landscapes. In practical effect, this overcomes the legal hurdle of standing. That is, in every jurisdiction but these Latin American countries, one has to demonstrate that they have a proprietary interest in the animal or ‘natural resource’ at issue or that their right to property or non-interference with enjoyment of property will be unduly impinged upon. If this cannot be demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Court, the claimant is said to lack locus standi. A recognition of legal personality overcomes this limitation and allows any (human) person to advocate on behalf of an animal or other part of the environment, or seek review of an administrative decision concerning them. There has been an advocate for animals employed by the state government of Zurich in Switzerland for years. Although it must be said the laws there are still cast in the welfare paradigm rather than extending ‘rights’ to animals, it shows that the idea of an advocate for animals is not without precedent. Indeed, the enforcement of animal welfare law in New Zealand would be substantially improved if the state funded prosecutors rather than leaving this important duty predominantly to a charitable organisation funded almost entirely by public donations.

You may note my hesitation in employing the term ‘rights’ when applied to animals. This is because I don’t think the term is particularly useful given its liberal-democratic connotations. It all too easily invites reductio ad absurdum ripostes to straw man arguments built around dogs having the right vote or disposition of the matrimonial property of horses. Of course, the extension of legal personality contends no such thing. Or, if the vocabulary of rights must be employed, it aligns with Professor Gary Francione’s argument that the only right any animal needs is the right not to be treated as property. But while we’re on the topic of satire, I’m reminded of a piece intended as a rhetorical knock-out blow to Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Entitled, A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, it was published anonymously (but later revealed to be the work of prominent Cambridge classicist, Thomas Taylor) shortly after the publication of Wollstonecraft’s manifesto and advanced the thesis that all the arguments made for the equality of women with men could equally be applied to the relationship between humans and animals. Two hundred and nineteen years ago, this was considered to be a damning comparison but in these more enlightened times it makes my point exactly!

The next day I held a seminar with a group predominantly comprised of law students to discuss the animal welfare codes in New Zealand. Welfare Codes are the regulations that allow industrial producers to exploit animals in ways that would otherwise be considered ‘ill-treatment’ under the Animal Welfare Act 1999. But more on this in a future post.

Otago certainly has a picturesque campus and I really appreciated the contrast with the University of Auckland campus which is bisected by major arterial roads and is bounded by the CBD. I was particularly impressed with the campus spirit and the sense of collegiality about the place. On more than one occasion, as I walked around the campus, I was stopped by people who had been to the lecture and were eager to talk further about the issues raised which was a really inspiring experience.

I was amazed at the strength of the Student Animal Legal Defence Fund (SALDF) group at Otago which generously funded my trip; they have really achieved something impressive. The SALDF is an initiative of the Animal Legal Defence Fund, a large public interest law firm in the United States. The Otago group is the first SALDF chapter in the southern hemisphere and is an excellent model for other chapters of the group in other New Zealand universities. All the more remarkable is the fact that unlike the University of Auckland which was fortunate enough to have Peter Sankoff teaching a course in Animal Law, Otago has never had any such programme. And yet, last year they held an animal law week in which students presented seminars on various animal legal issues. Incredible.

Special thanks to Danielle Duffield for being a great host, organising the whole event and making things very easy for me, I just had to turn up and talk. Thanks also to Kari Petro-Schmidt and Mahoney Turnbull for their contributions.

About Vernon Tava

Barrister. Lives in Auckland, New Zealand.


2 thoughts on “Talking Animal Rights and Welfare in Dunedin

  1. Great stuff Vernon. Glad to see you are keeping the Auckland animal law tradition alive. I too loved my time in Dunedin. It simultaneously amazed and depressed me. When I look at the amazing things a small group of committed students were able to do, I became inspired. But reflecting on the University of Auckland experience, I could not understand why the same things could not have been developed there. Oh well. Let’s stick to the positive. Great job at Otago, and best wishes to everyone at the Otago SALDF.

    Posted by petersankoff | 28 June 2011, 4:32 am
    • Thanks Peter, great to hear from you! Perhaps a SALDF chapter in Auckland?

      Posted by Vernon Tava | 28 June 2011, 11:18 am
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