Animals As Persons: An Idiosyncrasy Or New Reality?

Photograph: Sohini Mahapatra

“Man is by nature a social animal” – Aristotle’s famous saying, which is quite frequently used in common parlance, triggers the idea – is the reverse also true? If man can be considered an animal, can an animal be considered as a person? It may sound bizarre but isn’t it a thought worth pondering upon?

For centuries, man has dominated everything on this planet – both living and non-living. Hence, human relationship with non-human animals has also been accepted within the structure of a master-servant relationship. Humans have enjoyed the freedom of ‘using’ animals for several purposes, from worshipping them to eating them, from farm animals to pets, using for entertainment to experiments etc.

Thus, the status of animals has always remained more object-oriented or utility-based. This germinates the thought – do animals, which are living sentient beings capable of displaying varied degree of intelligence, depending on the species, have a value greater than what is accorded to them? At the outset, it might seem absurd. But animal rights or animal welfare are no longer outlandish concepts, especially in recent times. However, what do these rights mean and how far can animals be right-holders are pertinent questions.

For a layman, ‘human’ and ‘person’ are synonymous terms. However, under the law, a ‘person’ may be of two kinds – natural person and juristic or legal person. While natural persons are physical persons like humans, juristic or legal persons are those that are artificially created by law and entrusted with rights, having a distinct identity authorized by law. For example, corporations, companies and the like are legal persons, which are guaranteed rights under the law. Similarly, idols and deities in temples have also been recognized as ‘person’ through courts of law. They have the power to sue and be sued. Unlike natural persons, legal persons cannot move a court of law on their own and need a designated guardian on their behalf to do so. Hence, companies are legal persons, which function through their board of directors or other members; idols or deities in temples act through their trustees, etc. Likewise, in a path-breaking judgment, Narayan Dutt Bhatt v Union of India, in July 2018 by the High Court of Uttarakhand, the Court expressly recognized animals as ‘legal persons’. This entails that despite not being natural persons, non-human animals enjoy the same status of being right-holders as humans or natural persons do. They have the authority to move a court of law in case their rights are violated. Much like other legal persons, animals also need a guardian as their protector of rights, and as per the court’s decision humans are entrusted with this duty.

This brings up the question –what kind of rights do then non-human animals enjoy? Can they vote? Do they have the right to a livelihood? Are they at par with humans? Well, the answer is, non-human animals deserve and more so are bestowed with the basic right to life as humans do. Way back in 2014, a historical decision by the Supreme Court, Animal Welfare of India v A. Nagaraja, opened the gates of animal rights in this country by expanding ‘Right to Life’ guaranteed to humans under the Indian Constitution, to non-human animals also. This includes not only the right to justice but also the right to be treated with dignity, right to humane treatment, right to honour and dignity, right to safety, right to protection from cruelty and many other ancillary rights. Needless to say, this sparks a lot of debate and criticism across various groups of people because the inter-dependence of human and non-human animals cannot be entirely dissociated. Hence, it is pertinent to mention that the law also specifically states protection of animals from ‘unnecessary pain and suffering’.

Therefore, the objective of according animals with the status of ‘person’, is to ensure that they are not subjected to unnecessary cruelty or treated as property as per the whims and fancies of humans. The idea is to give more value to animals in terms of how they are perceived and treated, thereby elevating their status from mere secondary living beings placed on earth to fulfill the purpose of human lives. Where inanimate objects are recognized to have rights and enjoy a legal status, it is only fair that living non-human animals be given a like status.

The growing importance of animal welfare and animal rights is manifest not only through judicial decisions but also through growing consciousness, even if it is among a small section of the society. A world where animals are treated as living beings to say the least, and further to enjoy protected rights as ‘person’ might seem like a distant reality to some, to some it might be irrelevant and to some it might be utopian; nonetheless it is gradually beginning to become a reality amidst support and resistance alike.


[Dr Sohini Mahapatra is a Faculty of Law at National Law University Odisha]

[Disclaimer: The views expressed by the author are her own and do not necessarily represent those of the web portal]