A French bulldog named Kokito recently died aboard a United Airlines plane after a flight attendant ordered his owner to place him in an overhead bin.
Public outrage ensued. Proposed bipartisan legislation, now pending in the Senate, would make airlines pay fines for such incidents. Democrat Marisol Alcantara, a New York state lawmaker representing Manhattan, even drafted a bill of rights for animal passengers.
As a researcher interested in how society treats animals, I recently worked with an animal advocacy nonprofit to conduct a nationally representative survey that investigated what the public thinks about animals and their rights. The results showed that a clear majority of people identify as animal lovers. But not every self-professed animal lover supports full legal rights for animals.
For me, Kokito’s tragic death illustrates a broader controversial legal question, not just in the air but on the ground. Whose rights were actually violated in that overhead bin? The human passenger’s – or the dog’s?
Animals as property
U.S. law treats humans as the only animals considered “legal persons” capable of having rights. It designates all wild and domesticated animals, by contrast, as “legal things.” Pets and farmed animals alike are a form of property – by definition, they have no rights of their own.
There has been considerable legal and philosophical debate on this topic. Some legal scholars see no reason to change the status quo, arguing that animals are best protected through welfare regulations and anti-cruelty statutes that focus on how people treat them. A number of other activists and scholars, such as Harvard University’s Cass Sunstein, insist that it’s time to break down the legal barrier that separates humans from animals, calling for a limited set of animal rights that must be respected by the law.
To be sure, animals would never be able to vote or run for public office with this new status. But they would obtain the individual rights that would protect them from many forms of abuse and confinement, and people would be able to file lawsuits on their behalf.
To gauge public sentiment on this question, I worked with Qualtrics, a market research and survey company, to poll 1,044 Americans. These people were nationally representative in terms of their age, race and ethnicity, gender, income and region. The survey had a 3 percent margin of error.
About nine in 10 Americans, according to my survey, support some form of legal rights for animals. Nearly half believe that animals deserve the exact same rights as people. Only about 5.5 percent said they thought animals need little to no legal protection at all.
This survey is only the latest indication that support for the rights of animals is strong.
A 2015 Gallup poll, for instance, found that about one in three Americans believed animals should be given the same rights as people, up from one in four in 2008. Both times, Gallup found that only 3 percent supported largely denying animals any rights at all.
The Nonhuman Rights Project, a nonprofit aiming to secure legal personhood rights for animals, commissioned me to conduct the survey.
The group’s legal efforts, however, haven’t focused on dogs like Kokito. Instead, it has advocated on behalf of animals like Tommy and Kiko, two 30-something male chimpanzees who spent most of their lives as film performers and in roadside zoo cages.
The Nonhuman Rights Project argues that great apes should be the first animals transformed from “legal things” into “legal persons.” They point to chimpanzees’ scientifically demonstrated autonomy and their high level of emotional and cognitive complexity as the basis for this argument.
The nonprofit also insists that legal personhood isn’t limited to humans under U.S. law. The state technically treats corporations as rights-bearing persons. Several other nations, including New Zealand, India and Ecuador, recognize the legal personhood of rivers.
Although noted philosophers and law scholars support the notion of animal personhood, it has consistently lost in court. Many legal thinkers have dismissed the nonprofit’s lawsuits as frivolous and out of step with public morals and longstanding human intuition.
To clarify what the public actually thinks of granting these types of legal rights to chimpanzees and other autonomous animals, one survey question provided this background information:
“Some people believe that new laws should be passed that give certain species of highly intelligent animals – including great apes, elephants, and cetaceans like whales and dolphins – the legal right of bodily liberty, which would guarantee them freedom from imprisonment. Supporters of these laws want to remove animals from places like zoos, circuses, and research facilities and relocate them to sanctuaries and other protected nature reserves instead.”
Then, respondents were asked how inclined they would be to vote in favor of such a law or vote for a politician who supported it.
About half of the people taking part in my survey said they agreed with the Nonhuman Rights Project’s goals, while only one in five opposed them. Women and Democrats were the most likely to strongly favor these ideas. Few other clear patterns regarding differences of opinion emerged based on ethnic background, region, education level, income or religion.
A complicated relationship
In my view, the way modern society treats animals remains full of contradictions. While millions of household pets like Kokito are treated as members of the family, countless other animals suffer in places like factory farms.
Around 7.5 billion land animals are slaughtered annually in the U.S. for food. On average, a typical American consumes some 60 pounds of chicken, 50 pounds of beef and 15 pounds of seafood per year. My survey found that only about 6 percent of respondents followed a vegetarian or vegan diet, which is in line with other research on that question.
Despite the dominant culinary habits of Americans, public opinion polling and the uproar following Kokito’s untimely death aboard a United Airlines flight both point to how people want to see a world that grants animals significant legal protections. Many Americans even appear open to the idea of granting legal personhood to certain animals.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the rights of animals will ever become guaranteed by U.S. law.