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Animal lawyers dog the legal system

If you’ve ever tried to put your pet on a diet, you know what’s in store: A lot of meows or barks, a lot of buttering up, and a lot of those pleading eyes. But what if your pet could also try to get a restraining order against you?

Don’t laugh. The idea of animals having access to the courts is being pushed this very moment. And it could put everyone from farmers to beekeepers in the legal doghouse.

Everybody agrees that animals should have legal protections for their well-being. Animal welfare laws are about as controversial as apple pie. But animal liberation activist groups want something more: Legal standing for animals to sue in court. Or, more specifically, for activists to be able to sue on behalf of cows, chickens, dogs, monkeys and whales.

That’s a whole different legal animal — excuse the pun.

No legislature is considering changing the legal system, so activists have a backdoor strategy. A new HBO documentary called “Unlocking the Cage” explores the work of Steven Wise, whose group has been filing lawsuits in New York looking for one sympathetic judge to grant chimps habeas corpus, which was used by anti-slavery activists in centuries past.

That’s their point, of course. Wise and his allies see animals in zoos, aquariums, farms, and other institutions as modern-day slaves — even if their treatment is perfectly fine under animal welfare laws. They want animal liberation.

If this all sounds ripe for abuse, it is. Consider what happened when the Swiss canton of Zurich had an animal lawyer. In one instance, he represented a trophy-sized pike caught by an amateur fisherman. The lawyer alleged the 10-minute fight to reel in the 22-pound fish was abuse and took the angler to court on those grounds.

Legal rights for animals would let activists from PETA and the Humane Society of the United States launch lawsuits on behalf of any and every animal possible. And if you think the judiciary is jammed up now, just wait until it considers cases for all species.

Granting animals standing or personhood would clog the courts and Americans could get sued for farming, hunting or running a zoo. Animal activists don’t believe in using animals for food or entertainment. Right now, it’s a personal choice for people to eat meat or go to a circus. But if animals have legal “rights,” then it no longer is.

Chicken coops, fish tanks and circus rings would become obsolete places of oppression. Even pet ownership would be at stake. PETA’s president, for instance, has argued that “Pet ownership is an absolutely abysmal situation brought about by human manipulation.” An easy way to get rid of pets is if you can establish legal rights that forbid animals from being owned. After all, “ownership” is slavery to animal activists.

Activists forget the fundamental things which make us uniquely human. We are the rational animal, which makes us the sole species capable of obeying laws beyond our instincts. Simply put, we have moral obligations. Animals don’t. A person can be held responsible for making a choice, for instance, to poach an animal. But a cat couldn’t be put on trial for killing a mouse. It’s merely doing what cats do.

How serious should we take this movement? In 2001 there were only nine animal law classes offered in the United States. Today there are more than 150 schools offering these classes, and more than 200 chapters of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund. After law school radicalization, these lawyers file landmark lawsuits or become judges, legal experts, and powerful bureaucrats.

It will take only one judge to get the camel’s nose under the tent. And if that happens, expect a stampede.

Will Coggin is the research director for the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C.

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