We are getting there slowly but irrevocably. Meanwhile, you read it here first. The day is not far off when your pets can sue you for cruelty or for not having enough meat in their daily diet. They could sue you for their putting on weight, for losing it, or for being denied the choice of mate. This is not about artificial intelligence, but the genuine one.
True, the New York Court of Appeals ruled recently that an elephant in the Bronx Zoo has no human writ of habeas corpus rights that would allow her to challenge her imprisonment there. But it was a 5-2 decision, meaning that there were enough judges who thought the elephant – named ‘Happy’, since you asked – should be given a hearing. It is from such small dissensions that universal laws grow. The laws of planetary motion grew, you might remember, from the dissenter who said it was the earth that went around the sun and not the other way around.
But back to the Elephant named Happy. The nay-sayers argued that a nonhuman animal who is not a ‘person’ cannot be treated as one. The yea-sayers had a more interesting argument.
They maintained that habeas corpus was “vigorously used” to challenge the detention of slaves when, under law, they were deemed “chattel’’. Likewise with women and children who were not given rights either. From there to an elephant named Happy is barely half a step. No one should be denied access to the legal system simply because of who they are. Or what they are or how many legs they have or on the basis of trunks, wings or webbed feet. That was the argument.
I have nothing against animals. Regular readers of this column will be aware that I once patted a cat and twice smiled at a giraffe. But should the cat be allowed to sue me for my gesture or the giraffe have the right to take me to court because it thought I was making fun of its neck? Can we use the pronoun ‘it’ for an animal, who after all is a living, moving, procreating being?
And what about cockroaches? Will the relatives of the one I squished to death be allowed to take me to court for murder? And how will they prove anything? Worms dangling at the end of my fishing line, lizards trapped in some crack in the wall, fish last seen in my curry – will they or their loved ones take legal action? Do you sense Pandora hanging around nearby with her box?
What next? Will fictional characters be given rights too? Should Hamlet have the right to sue Shakespeare for making him an irresolute, dithering character?