This manifesto was drafted by Me Sophie Gaillard, lawyer at the Montreal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) and Martin Gibert, postdoctoral fellow at McGill, with the collaboration of Élise Desaulniers, author of Vache à lait. The manifesto has been officially endorsed by the Montreal SPCA.
The manifesto is based on both scientific and ethical considerations. From a scientific standpoint, the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, proclaimed on July 7, 2012, maintains that a large number of animals have the ability to feel emotions, pleasure, and pain:
The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.
From an ethical perspective, there is a consensus amongst most scholars working in the field of animal ethics, a discipline that explores our obligations towards animals, that if animals are sentient beings, we should respect their fundamental interests and abstain from causing them unnecessary harm.
The mainfesto was also inspired by a similar initiative undertaken in France. On October 23, a number of French intellectuals called for an evolution of animals’ legal status in the French civil code. A number of renowned public figures were amongst the signatories, including philosophers Edgard Morin, André Comte-Sponville, Luc Ferry and Michel Onfray, buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, neuropsychiatrist Boris Cyrulnik, and astrophysician Hubert Reeves.
What is animals’ current legal status in the Civil Code of Quebec?
Currently, the Civil Code of Quebec divides the legal world into two fundamental categories: persons, on the one hand, and property, on the other. By definition, only persons are subjects of rights. The category of ‘persons’ includes human beings, of course (art. 1), but also includes legal persons (art. 298), such as corporations. The category of ‘property’ covers everything else: houses, chairs, toasters and… animals (art. 905).
Jurisprudence has, on several occasions, confirmed the status of animals as property. Indeed, Quebec courts have determined that the following animals constitute moveable property: cats (De Belleval c. 137888 Canada inc.,  R.R.A. 1038 (C.Q.)), horses (Sullivan-Lévesque c. Boucher (2000), B.E. 2001BE-141 (C.Q.)), dogs (Goyette c. Centre canin Benji (2000), SOQUIJ AZ-50080962 (C.Q.); Lévesque c. Chabot,  C.P. 400 (C.P.)), and birds (Tremblay c. Laflamme (2001), SOQUIJ AZ-50107740 (C.Q.)).
What other initiatives exist around the world?
The Austrian, German, and Swiss civil codes all include specific provisions expressly declaring that animals are not things but rather living beings, and that they must be protected by particular laws. Animals are thus considered to belong to a special category of property that is qualitatively distinct from that of inanimate objects.
In 2008, Spain adopted a resolution recommending that great apes be granted fundamental rights such as the right to life, the right not to be subject to arbitrary detention, and the right not to be tortured. This resolution was not, however, enacted into law by the Spanish government.
In 2013, the Indian government announced that dolphins, porpoises, and whales would from now on be considered “nonhuman persons”. Consequently, these animals are entitled to fundamental rights and their keeping in captivity is prohibited in India.
Recently, the Nonhuman Rights Project, headed by American lawyer Steven M. Wise, demanded that New York state courts recognize the legal personhood of chimpanzees for the purposes of granting them certain rights. This initiative received wide media coverage (La Presse, Le Monde, The New York Times, The Guardian). A similar endeavor is currently being attempted in Argentina.
How do Quebec and Canada compare to other jurisdictions in terms of animal protection?
Each year, the American nonprofit organization Animal Legal Defense Fund publishes a report based on a detailed comparative analysis of the animal protection laws in force in Canada and ranks each province based on the relative strength and comprehensiveness of its legislation. According to the sixth edition of the report, published last summer, Quebec lags behind when it comes to animal protection laws. Indeed, for the third consecutive year, the province was ranked as the worst province in the country, followed only by Nunavut.
Though the Animal Legal Defense Fund report is based on penal legislation that is distinct from the Civil Code, Quebec’s position as the worst province in the country when it comes to animal protection legislation is indicative of our need to rethink how the law views and treats animals.
At the federal level, the Criminal Code also suffers from significant flaws in terms of animal protection. For example, the Criminal Code does not prohibit the act of unnecessarily killing a stray or wild animal. Further, when an animal is neglected, the prosecution must be able to prove that the owner or guardian’s neglect was willful, which is extremely difficult to do. Finally, it is of interest to note that offences pertaining to animal cruelty or neglect are classified in the section of the Criminal Code entitled Wilful and Forbidden Acts in Respect of Certain Property. Thus, even though the demands made in this manifesto pertain to the Civil Code of Quebec, it is clear that the phenomenon of categorizing animals as property exists at both the federal and provincial level.
What would be the consequences of changing animals’ legal status?
The repercussions of modifying animals’ legal status in the Civil Code depend entirely on the nature of the new status attributed to them. One could, for example, consider granting animals a legal status close to the one they currently have, but that would recognize the fact that they are sentient. This is the approach favoured by Austria, Switzerland, and Germany: animals are declared to be different from things because they are living, sentient beings, but they are nevertheless considered property for the purpose of applying the law, and thus continue to be subject to the property regime (they can continue to be bought, sold, etc.). This type of change in legal status is symbolic in nature and the consequences it entails are relatively minor in practice. For example, in Switzerland, the revision of animals’ legal status generated the following reforms:
- The possibility of creating testamentary dispositions in favour of an animal that impose on heirs the obligation to appropriately care for that animal;
- In civil disputes regarding the ownership of a companion animal (for example, in divorce cases), the obligation to grant exclusive ownership based on the best interests of the animal;
- When an animal is killed or harmed, the possibility for judges to take into account the emotional value that the animal has in the eyes of his or her owner.
A second option would be to grant animals a status similar to that of ‘person’, thereby entitling them to certain elements of legal personhood, such as the ability to have certain rights. This could potentially have far-reaching effects and would force us to question many of our current practices, for example, factory farming. Additionally, because property rights can only be exercised with regard to property, removing animals entirely from the property category would also mean that they could no longer be appropriated (we could no longer own them, buy them, sell them, etc.).
Of course, there are many other possible options.
Our manifesto calls for a reevaluation of animals’ legal status without, however, suggesting what form this new status should take. We believe that such a crucial and complex question warrants a public debate. By gathering together public figures from various backgrounds and by inviting members of the public who are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs to sign the manifesto, we ask that the process of examining this question and revising the applicable legislation begin.