Property – what it means to be ‘owned’
An Animal Rights Article from

FROM There's an Elephant in the Room blog
February 2020

'You see, we don’t treat animals badly because they’re property. We classify animals as property so that we can treat them badly.’

ear tags
Image by Aitor Garmendia, Tras los Muros. Ear tags in a slaughterhouse, recording assets ‘processed’ to realise financial value for their ‘owner’. Each one represents a broken individual whose entire existence was a prelude to the moment their tag appeared on the shelf.

I’ve written about ‘property’ before but it’s a topic that bears repeating. Maybe I’ll stumble across new ways of expressing the monstrous abomination that owning other individuals represents. As the crushing impacts of widespread climate-collapse increase in frequency, along with disease and other horrors related to our astonishing sense of entitlement to butcher our way through our lives, more and more members of nonhuman species are paying with everything they have for our folly and neglect of the planet we all need for survival.

No room to criticise

While the terror of the latest in an endless series of zoonotic diseases stalks the planet, hate-filled tirades sweep social media, as if every single outraged commenter came from a land where all sentient beings lived in harmony and mutual respect. How swiftly shoved to the back of the collective mind are the recent camel massacre and the pending extinction of koalas in fire ravaged Australia where licences are still being issued for ‘culling‘ kangaroos; the canned hunting privileges being bought by financially rich but morally bankrupt westerners; the fact that our species has added a further 2.2 billion (2,200,000,000) chickens to our annual voracious orgy of gluttony; the ‘culling‘ of wild horses, of badgers and deer, of crows, gulls, geese, swans, seals, insects and even songbirds that take place on our very doorsteps; the millions of unwanted ‘pets’ slaughtered annually for the crime of being unwanted; the ‘hunts’ where dogs are coached to violence and honed by hunger to chase down and tear apart terrified foxes or hares. And then there are things that are an offence to all decency by their very existence; veal; foie gras; fins hacked from sharks; macerators in hatcheries. The list is endless.

I live in Scotland. Google ‘exotic meat suppliers’, and find for consumption the desecrated corpses of ostriches and crocodiles, alpacas and elks, squirrels, frogs, pythons, snails, crickets, zebras and then tell me how we’re ‘better’ than other places. Western governments are actually paying for the destruction of the world through agricultural subsidies from the public purse, subsidies that deny and ignore science and health in favour of powerful vested financial interest as if they are somehow exempt from the laws of physics.

It’s all legal

Every single country has a closet filled to bursting with skeletons of shame. I could write pages listing perfectly legal standard practice, could make readers wish to vomit with disgust. No nation has room to point fingers at any other and every single thing that happens is driven by the one overarching prejudice that has at one time affected every single one of us to a greater or lesser extent: speciesism; that complete disregard for the rights of any who aren’t human, and the ignoring of the fact that their consent to our abuse and violence is being understandably withheld.

And speciesism has spawned a legal framework that facilitates every single atrocity that the corrupt and fertile imagination of our brutal and violent species is capable of inventing. We have made up laws that designate every nonhuman as our property to do with as we will.

Our property. It’s completely one-sided; our victims’ interests were never taken into account – in fact ‘property’ legislation dates from the 17th century when, in the infancy of humanity’s understanding of our fellow earthlings, contemporary scientists decided they had no interests and in some cases were even incapable of feeling pain. Although we now know this to be completely incorrect, we cling to these archaic laws and have set ourselves up as the grim overlords of the living planet, continuing to rubber-stamp any vileness that suits our flimsiest excuses through loopholes built into every legislative approval.

It never stops

Sensationalist popular media has schooled consumers to be always hungry for new titillation and trivia while serious, journalistic integrity that critiques and informs is a rare thing never found in the popular rags. The fact that the press has skipped on to new topics doesn’t mean that calamities in Australia, or the polar regions, or the Amazon, are over, or that their impact is not still decimating individuals of all their resident species; it just means that it’s not ‘news’ any more and some new ‘sensation’ is selling papers and magazines.

The ongoing waves of social media outrage that are sparked by each new nonhuman-related tragedy that springs up, underline that many – even amongst those who are vegan – still don’t appreciate the terrible implications of what it truly means for members of other animal species to be the ‘property’ of our species; what it means for living breathing, feeling individuals to be ‘owned’. I know this because of the time I and others spend fielding angry demands about ‘what can be done’ to stop the culling of various wild creatures, demands to know how to ‘rescue’ farmed animals from farms and slaughterhouses, demands to know ‘who to complain to’ when we see the images of helpless innocents who have incinerated or drowned or suffered injury or attack at human hands, while everywhere is repeated the mistaken idea that ‘welfare‘ for our victims has something to do with their wellbeing rather than human profit. Yet all the outrage is missing the point. The point is that virtually nothing can be done and with only the very occasional exception, it’s all perfectly legal:

‘You see, we don’t treat animals badly because they’re property. We classify animals as property so that we can treat them badly.’
- Lesli Bisgould, Adjunct Professor at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, and the Barrister at Legal Aid Ontario’s Clinic Resource Office.

We make it about us – and the law backs us up

And when we do hear about our victims being impacted by human activities, because they are legally nothing more than property and hence business assets and resources, the stories are invariably presented as a disaster for the ‘owner’ of the land or the establishment; their loss of revenue, their inconvenience. It’s all about humans, all a human interest tragedy that they’ll have to claim insurance and ‘re-stock‘.

‘Being born as “livestock” is always a dangerous proposition. You are born to make money and often that profit is only realised once you are dead. During a fire emergency, you are no longer “livestock” — you are just “stock.” You are the things we fill our supermarket shelves with. You will not be shuttled to safety. Your image will not be used to solicit donations. You will become a “biohazard.” If you manage to survive, you will soon be killed anyway.
- Siobhan O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, author of Animals, Equality and Democracy

Persecution, habitat destruction, forced labour, imprisonment, torture, mutilation, execution and more are the inevitable result of existing as living, breathing, feeling ‘property’. ‘The property status of animals’ is not some legal technicality that prevents every other species from sharing in the privileges that humans claim for themselves in this world that we are rapidly destroying.

Yes, we’ve all seen the ‘wits’ who pour scorn on animal rights with ludicrous ideas about whether members of other animal species should have the right to vote or should be entitled to hold a driving license etc. It’s common for the scorn of shallow hacks seeking cheap laughs to be weighted alongside scientific studies and analyses as if their words were of equal importance, presenting readers with a pick’n’mix of nonsense that panders to every prejudice and bias alongside (if we’re lucky) actual information.

Nevertheless, a status as ‘property’ has utterly predictable consequences for our victims leading directly from our speciesist commitment to use their lives and bodies as if they existed specifically for that purpose, an intention reflected by what we put in our supermarket trolleys and by every nonvegan purchase of broken bodies, lives and labour that we make.

‘The fundamental wrong is the system that allows us to view animals as our resources, here for us — to be eaten, or surgically manipulated, or exploited for sport or money.... Once we accept this view of animals – as our resources – the rest is as predictable as it is regrettable.’
- Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights

So what can we do?

Legal does not equate to morally right. The solutions are not simple, they’re not quick, no one has them all, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll even be enough to save the planet. More than veganism is going to be needed and I’d never claim otherwise. But it’s not optional. We are now in the midst of the fight of our lives; and it’s a fight for the lives of those who have for too long been our victims, a fight for the very existence of the living world, a planet that we are destroying which is theirs as much as it was ever ours.

If integrity matters to us at all, then as individual consumers we must take responsibility for our actions. We are each personally responsible for every single activity that has been carried out in our name, to meet our demands as consumers. Only by changing our behaviour can we stand any chance of turning back the tide of destruction that we have unleashed upon the world.

I know many are asking what happens if the tide doesn’t turn? Nothing in life has ever come with a guarantee. Whatever we face in the immediate future, at least we’ll have the peace of mind that comes of knowing that we have lived true to the values we all claimed to hold.

We need to reject speciesism and become vegan, and there’s not a moment to lose.


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