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Johnny Depp’s dogs show evolving ideas of animal ‘citizenship’

The story of Johnny Depp’s dogs and their potential fate attracted global media attention. AAP/Dave Hunt

The media storm created by Johnny Depp’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to sneak his dogs into Australia took some air from other political stories, like the federal budget wash-up. It was, however, a member of Tony Abbott’s government who was responsible for the outcry. Barnaby Joyce warned:

If we start letting movie stars even though they’ve been the ‘sexiest man alive’ twice to come into our nation, then why don’t we just break the laws for everybody? It’s time that Pistol and Boo buggered off back to the United States.

Rejecting suggestions that the dogs be quarantined, the agriculture minister threatened to have Depp’s dogs killed – unless they were removed from the country within days.

For many in the media, animal stories like this are rather trivial.

John Oliver was among many in the media who lampooned the story of Johnny Depp’s dogs.

Of course, the media take seriously the fact that our country has strict quarantine policies, which protect us from diseases like rabies. No-one doubted that Depp had acted irresponsibly.

Yet few people seriously believed, especially once the dogs were located and confined, that Australia was at any real risk from Depp’s deception, notwithstanding Joyce’s bluster.

Barnaby Joyce’s threat to have Johnny Depp’s dogs killed caused a public outcry. AAP/Mick Tsikas

Although many people still regard animal stories as trivial – and certainly the media often renders them trivial - there is an emerging ethic that treats our relations with animals with more seriousness. Within 24 hours, thousands had signed the petition to protest Joyce’s threat.

Animals are important in our lives

Over recent decades there has also been a move, albeit an often resisted move, to treat our relations with animals as worthy of sustained attention. We can see evidence of this on both the “science” side and the “humanities” side of academia and in certain professions.

For example, the veterinary profession has come to regard as highly important research into what has been called the “human-animal bond”. According to the Australian Veterinary Association, the benefits of this bond include “companionship, health and social improvements and assistance for people with special needs”.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention names lowered blood pressure and reduction in loneliness as just two possible benefits.

It is true, as some have claimed, that this research is inconclusive. However, scientists are now effectively treating our close, emotional relationships with animals not as aberrant or foolishly sentimental behaviour, but as an important part of our lives.

For example, the media have reported on studies into the way that people grieve for their animal companions. Many people regard them as family members and actually feel closer to them than to some of their human relatives.

Language and law mark shift in relations

Traditionally, we have referred to animal “owners”. One effect of the way we now take human-animal relations more seriously is that this kind of language is being questioned. Some have argued that we should speak of animal “guardianship” rather than “ownership”.

Even more radically, some lawyers are pushing to re-define animals from property to legal persons. The most recent case involves two chimpanzees being used for biomedical experimentation in New York.

Our relations with animals are being re-imagined in various humanities disciplines. A dramatic example comes from Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka, who has written influentially on liberalism and multiculturalism. In the book Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights, Kymlicka (with writer Sue Donaldson) argues that the time has come for recognising certain animals as genuine members of society.

He argues that animals with whom we can live in co-operative, sociable, complex relationships – namely, the domesticated animals as opposed, say, to wild animals – should be recognised as fellow citizens.

This does not mean that they should be granted the rights to vote or run for parliament, any more than young children should have those rights. But it does mean that certain animals should be granted some of the rights that go with citizenship.

For example, we may have strong obligations to teach our dogs to be sociable and well-adjusted, and to allow them more access to parks and other life-enriching community amenities. They would possess these rights insofar as they can respond with appropriate co-operation. Citizenship in the “Zoopolis” would certainly mean that politicians do not threaten dogs, even visiting dogs who are citizens of other countries, with being killed just because it suits their political purposes.

Of course, the “Zoopolis” is an idea that is presently far ahead of community opinion. Nevertheless, it is a product and a dimension of our changing ethic towards human-animal relations.

Barnaby Joyce failed spectacularly to understand the modern change in human-animal relations, which is why he attracted the opprobrium of many people in Australia and around the world.

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