Animals Should Have Independent Legal Rights, Says Israeli Judge

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The law should set criteria for the relationship between people and animals that are similar to the rules for guardianship, rather than rely on people’s compassion, a Haifa District Court judge said this week.

Judge Daniel Fisch made this call Sunday in a case involving a man from Kafr Samia named Suleiman Nasser, who was accused of abusing his dog by tying him to the back of his car and dragging him along the road, seriously wounding the dog. The veterinarian had to put the dog down.

Nasser was detained by police, and released from custody to full house arrest, which prevented him from going to work. He appealed the restrictions and while Fisch rejected his appeal, he eased the limitations and allowed him to work.

In his ruling, Fisch chose to elaborate and deal with the principles of the law relating to animals. He wrote that today there are two central approaches: One says that animals do not have, and can never have, independent legal rights, but that human beings, out of pity and compassion, are obligated to protect them and prevent them from harm and suffering. The other approach, however, holds that animals’ legal rights should be recognized, and some courts around the world have recognized certain aspects of their independent legal rights.

Fisch noted that Israeli law hasn’t decided the question of whether animals have legal rights. He argued that recognizing such rights, without making them identical to those of humans, would assure them greater protection from harm.

“My opinion is that it would behoove the legal system to move beyond an outlook that solely reflects compassion toward animals, to an outlook recognizing that animals have a certain level of independent legal rights,” the judge wrote. “The legal significance would be that humans’ obligations would not be measured by the compassion required by the status of masters over them, but by criteria stemming from a position of guardianship.”

Fisch argued that there are scientific and utilitarian reasons for giving animals independent legal status. He said that Darwin’s Theory of Evolution has already proven that there is no rational justification for viewing one species or another as superior. A more central reason is that other approaches haven’t succeeded in preventing damage to fauna, or in protecting the ecological diversity that is crucial to human survival. He added that recognizing animals’ legal rights would eliminate the question of whether someone should be arrested for cruelty to animals. Currently one can find grounds for arrest only in the context of expressing compassion for the animal that was harmed.

Attorney Yossi Wolfson of the Let the Animals Live association called Fisch’s ruling “another important step in the clear Israeli legal trend toward seeing animals as having intrinsic rights. It is part of a broader social vision that sees people as equal participants in the community of the living on Earth.

“But there’s a gap that’s difficult to bridge between this progressive concept and the accepted practice in the relationship between humans and other living things,” he said. “If the legal system already sees animals as having rights, the challenge is to put content into those rights and make a significant change in the behavior of human beings.” 

Dog undergoing rehab in Jerusalem after abuse (Illustrative).Credit: Emil Salman

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