Being property—what it means
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM There's an Elephant in the Room blog
May 2019

If we do recognise that Emma deserved her life, then, because they are not in any justifiable sense any different from Emma, we must also recognise the rights of the trillions of other individuals that we slaughter each year for spurious and fabricated reasons.

Only veganism recognises the rights of all individuals—whatever their species—to own their bodies and live their lives so I see it like this. If Emma deserved to live, we need to be vegan.


There’s a story that’s causing outrage in the media at the moment, about a healthy dog named Emma who was slaughtered and cremated so that her ashes could be buried along with her deceased owner. The comments were predictably scathing, railing against ‘cruelty’, disputing the legality of the deed and expressing contempt for those who carried out the final request of Emma’s deceased owner.

Before I go on, let’s get the situation in perspective by pausing for an analogy.


What if someone had requested that they be buried with their most treasured photographs or some deeply sentimental possessions like books, or items of clothing, jewellery, or ornaments? Or like the pharaohs and some other cultures of the ancient world, what if they had requested that some (or many) precious item(s) that had been significant in life, be buried with them? I’ve recently heard tales of people choosing to be buried in a prized car. I don’t suppose many would see an ethical problem with such notions, apart from the total impracticality of the space it would take up if everyone was to do it. I think the general consensus would be a shrug, indicating that although it may be incomprehensible why anyone would want to do the more extreme things, we recognise others’ right to choose what they do with their own possessions.

With me so far? Why are we all so fine with this, do you think? The answer is breathtakingly simple. Every one of us is thinking about inanimate objects. They’re things; perhaps precious to the deceased but they’re clearly not other living individuals. In fact that’s the point at which we all begin to get uncomfortable and—let’s be honest—rather judgemental; the point where we hear about funeral rituals where the living are, or were, interred or immolated alongside the deceased, whether as slaves destined to serve the dead in some hoped-for afterlife, or for some other reason. That’s where it becomes a completely different matter for the majority of us.

Okay, so what’s actually different about this situation involving Emma? I’ve seen outraged comments, seeking to convey something so obvious that it almost defied expression. Emma was a living individual. She was healthy and clearly not ready to die. It’s clear that almost every single person expressing an opinion totally ‘gets’ the concept of Emma’s life, and her right to live it, at a deeply instinctive level. We can all see the immense injustice of what was done to this innocent and blameless little creature. We can all recognise the betrayal of this little dog who simply wanted—and deserved—to carry on living her healthy life.

Wake-up call

Yet in fact, what was done to Emma is a perfect illustration of the key legal definition as property that underpins every nonvegan choice that any of us has ever made, a definition without which it is questionable whether nonvegan ‘choices’ would even be legal.

So this is where we have to all wake up from the cosy land of make-believe and the myths with which we are indoctrinated from childhood. Whatever we may fondly imagine about the world in which we live, the laws, the regulations, even the governing and commercial structures that enable a nonvegan way of life and facilitate our demands as consumers are designed to make what happened to Emma perfectly legitimate and not even open to question. And they absolutely have to be for our actions to continue. Read on if you find that shocking.

But...There are laws!

Such legislation as exists relating to members of nonhuman species certainly bestows no protection whatsoever upon them for the vast majority of the vile and unthinkable practices that our species inflicts on them. This brief talk by Lesli Bisgould, Canada’s first animal rights lawyer, explains the reality so well.

WATCH VIDEO: It's time to re-evaluate our relationships with animals (youtube)

Other animals are legally defined as the property of our species.

Every time a similar situation evokes a widespread emotive response in the way that Emma’s slaughter has, and I write about it as I did about Cecil the lion, and the floods in Carolina, it surprises me how few people had appreciated all the terrible implications of ‘the property status of animals’. Although the phrase is one that many activists, including myself, have used, it’s clear that few recognise the true significance of the words; few understand what it truly means for a living, breathing individual who values life and living, to be the property of another species that values them only for the use that can be made from them.

It needs to be stressed that this ‘property status’ is not some legal technicality that prevents every other species from sharing in the privileges that humans accord themselves in this world that we are destroying at a breathtaking rate. It’s not some legal hocus-pocus that’s needed so we don’t have to give members of other species the right to vote or drive vehicles. ‘The property status of animals’ has very real and utterly predictable consequences that are as sickening as they are inevitable; it means we can do what we like to them and in the vast majority of instances, commit no offence.

This status that our species accords to other living creatures whereby we designate them as our ‘property’, is the one that facilitates that carton of breast milk in the fridge, that dead flesh, those eggs on the supermarket shelves. It’s what enables zoos and animal testing laboratories to exist, how we manage to use others for forced labour and ‘entertainment’ without being held to account for the absence of consent from our victims.

But... It’s cruelty!

Please see my previous discussion about this subjective concept we call ‘cruelty’. Basically it’s a word that can’t even be objectively defined – it means whatever we want it to mean, whatever suits our purposes.

Once we have decided that the life of another sentient being has no worth other than to be used for our convenience; once we have decided their desperate wish to live unharmed and in peace is an irrelevance, their status as our property facilitates any and all that we need to do to indulge ourselves.

And for as long as the human animals who make up the laws they choose to recognise, grant themselves the power of life and death over members of other animal species; to buy them or sell them or even give them away without being in breach of any law; if we can disregard their preferences and needs to suit our own justifications, then regardless of our intentions, they will continue to be considered to be our property and concern about ‘cruelty‘ is an irrelevant effort to salve our conscience for the atrocity.

But... It should be illegal—we need to change the laws!’

Here we have an example of the stark inconsistency with which our species regards other animals. Here, because Emma, a named individual with whom we all empathise, is being considered and championed, we have a situation where it is crystal clear to so many that we have a moral duty to protect healthy individuals from actions that we all recognise as completely against their interests. And it should be noted that slaughter, the usual escape for the majority of our victims, is always against their interests.

Yet on the other side of that same coin the majority hold a contradictory stance regarding the animal species that it suits us to use to death and/or slaughter in infancy to gorge on their dead flesh. The very fact that as ‘property’ in the eyes of the law, they have no rights and no recognition of their interests, is what enables our brutal use of them, and the suggestion that it could ever become illegal is often used as an unsubtle suggestion that any such intervention to protect them would add insult to injury by potential infringement of ‘personal’ choice.

I can attribute the following quote only to an unknown law professor.

‘Law has no meaning or relevance outside of society. It both shapes and is shaped by the society in which it functions. Law is made by humans. It protects, controls, burdens and liberates humans, non-human animals, nature, and inanimate physical objects. Like the humans who make it, Law is biased, noble, aspirational, short-sighted, flawed, messy, unclear, brilliant, and constantly changing.‘

In short, it is society that must change in a way that begins at the level of the individual, and this must happen long before any legislative change can occur. Society as a whole and as a collection of individuals, must first acknowledge what values our laws should enshrine, before that legislation can be adopted.

And so back to Emma

There is no biological or other difference between the species that we brutalise for consumption, and for other purposes such as ‘entertainment’, forced labour, laboratory test subjects, surgical spare parts or simply, as is the case for so many that we consider to be nonhuman family members, as companions or ‘pets’. And in general the law does not differentiate.

So did Emma deserve to live because she was not a thing, not an object like a photograph, an item of clothing, or an ornament? Well, here’s the thing. We can’t have it both ways:

  • We can continue to fabricate myths and fantasies to excuse ourselves for nonveganism when it suits us to use, harm and slaughter them without conscience. To do this, we need to regard them as ‘property’ because the fact of our use of them as resources and commodities denies their every right and interest.
  • Or we can stop.

If we do recognise that Emma deserved her life, then, because they are not in any justifiable sense any different from Emma, we must also recognise the rights of the trillions of other individuals that we slaughter each year for spurious and fabricated reasons.

Only veganism recognises the rights of all individuals—whatever their species—to own their bodies and live their lives so I see it like this. If Emma deserved to live, we need to be vegan.

Please read followup article: A brief thought about words: euthanasia

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