Attorneys arguing on behalf of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NRP), are attempting to free four chimpanzees from “captivity” in New York (well, actually, just changing the location of their captivity). If the courts buy into at least one of their arguments, for example, that since the chimps were named as beneficiaries under New York’s Pet Trust Statute (NY EST POW & TRST § 7-8.1) they are considered legal persons and must be freed, there will be a paradigm shift in animal ownership and related industries in New York, which could spread throughout the country.
To prevail along this theory, the court would have to find that the trust NRP had established for the chimpanzees is valid under the governing statute. That statute permits owners to establish a testimentatory trust for a designated domestic or pet animal. The trust NRP established for the chimps is likely invalid because it does not comply with the statutory requirements:
1) the trust was established by stangers, and the chimps’ owners are not the grantors, trustees or enforcers;
2) the trust grantors are alive and not incapacitated; and
3) chimpanzees are considered wild animals in New York, not a pet or domestic animal.
While it is likely that NRP will not prevail, if they do, animal ownership and the use of animals for food, research, entertainment and companionship, would be forever changed.
First, anyone could establish a trust for someone else’s pets or domestic animals, whether or not the owners were alive or dead, incapacitated or fully functional.
Once formed, the enforcer of that trust could petition to free those animals from their existing owners.
For the animal agricultural industry, this would end the use of animals for food production. Individuals or organizations who do not believe that animals should be used for food or fiber would establish those trusts, and petition the courts to have those animals freed from the farms on which they reside. Livestock operations would fold.
Even if the livestock were not “freed,” suits on behalf of these non-human legal persons would likely fill the courts dockets, with claims of mistreatment, abuse, assault, battery, and the like. There would be no limit to the type of complaints that might be brought, under the theory that livestock were legal persons, at least if the livestock were beneficiaries of a trust.
And for pet owners, the situation could be just as dire. Owners would no longer be able to determine the extent and type of veterinary care that was appropriate for their pets. There have already been instances where people have stolen their neighbors pets because they did not agree with the owner’s choice not to pursue aggressive veterinary care for a sick pet. Under the NRP’s proposed viewpoint, individuals in that situation could establish a trust, and either petition for the release of the pet from the owner to their care, or take other legal action to require that the specific veterinary care they have determined is required is provided. So pet owners would no longer be able to determine what is the best treatment for their pets, no matter what the cost of that treatment may be.
NRP’s proposed argument may actually threaten the viability of pet trust statutes in New York or other states. If lawmakers or pet owners become concerned that pet trusts will be used as stepping stones to establish legal personhood for animals, than their use could be curtailed or banned.
Pet trusts and the statutes that declare them to be valid legal instruments, have been established to ensure that animals are properly cared for when their owners are no longer able to see to their care themselves. If states intended that the beneficiaries of these trusts were to be considered legal persons, those intentions would have been clearly stated during the introduction and adoption of those statutes.
Hopefully, the courts hearing the appeals of the NRP’s petitions will reject NRP’s conclusion that New York legislators had declared that non-human domestic animals were legal persons when they enacted and amended the Pet Trust Statute in New York.