Philosophy > Morality

An Examination of the Property Status Of Animals

We live in a cultural system which places more value on inanimate property than on the life of sentient animals who feel pleasure, pain, fear, and attachment to other living creatures – thus we attribute property status to these animals so that they can be most efficiently exploited in order to further human ends. For example, if a person living in the post-industrial United States who was running a business that raises pigs for food were to keep the pigs in tiny cages for most of their lives, then send the animals to be violently killed at a slaughterhouse in order for the business to profit financially – then this business would be recognized by the state and the bulk of its citizens as a legal and legitimate enterprise. However, if a group of people, who believe that living, breathing, feeling creatures deserve the right to be treated as if they are more than just property that exists to be exploited for the profit and pleasure of their owners, act on their beliefs by breaking into the aforementioned business in order to liberate the pigs and take action against the physical property used to exploit the pigs - then these people would be considered domestic terrorists by the FBI.[1] The domestic terrorist label is given to many animal liberation groups, particularly the Animal Liberation Front, despite the fact that they exist to promote compassion for all life, and seek to prevent and end violence towards all sentient animals – both human and nonhuman.[2] It is one of the duties of the state to protect the property of its citizens; but is the state justified in relegating animals to the status of property? This article will examine the system of exploitation that has been so rationalized into our way of life that we protect the property rights of those who enslave and kill sentient beings for profit over the right to life of the sentient beings who are exploited by this system.

Before delving right into discussing the actual legal status of animals in our society, it is important to get a scope of the massive nature of the animal exploitation industry; which can, in part, be explained with the following data: The USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service maintains reports on the numbers of the various livestock commodities used each year in U.S. food production. The number of commodities that we know as chickens, turkeys, ducks, pigs, cows, and sheep which were killed for food in 2001 – was over 9.9 BILLION[3]. --- In other words, in that one year, nearly ten billion living, breathing, feeling, warm-blooded creatures had their lives taken from them by American human institutions. That means, on average, more than 314 animals are violently killed by the food industry in the United States each second of every day, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year after year after year. Therefore, if it took you about two minutes to read this far – then it is fair to estimate that more than 37,000 animals were killed in American slaughterhouses since you started reading this article.

Gary Francione, Professor at Rutgers University School of Law and one of the nation’s leading scholars of Animal Law, believes that a means central to maintaining the hierarchy of violently exploiting nonhuman animals for human means involves the way the law sees nonhuman animals as property that are intrinsically worth whatever value a human owner can assign to the nonhuman animal.[4] Francione reasons, as long as nonhuman animals are treated as property, they will be used as a resource or commodity that will serve to benefit the anthropocentric view of progress, or satisfy a taste or amusement involving nonhuman animal flesh or pain, or be used in order for human animals in the business of exploiting nonhuman animals to profit financially. Francione draws further along this line of logic by expressing his belief that animal welfare reform is not capable of properly addressing this issue. For example, even though a law exists called the Humane Slaughter Act, slaughterhouse workers have testified that cows often have their legs cut off and are skinned while they are still conscious.[5] Though such cruel acts are illegal, enforcement agencies regularly fail to prosecute these cases because in practice the anti-cruelty statutes rarely serve to protect nonhuman animals from exploitation, and they are often only enforced when human interests are at stake.[6] The human slaughterhouse owners are interested in profits. Therefore, because the owners won’t lose profits when a live cow has it hooves cut off, there is little interest in prosecuting the case.

Evidence which backs Francione’s claim that the property status of nonhuman animals is used to keep them enslaved as tools to be used for human ends can be seen in the report done by Temple Grandin for the American Meat Institute. Grandin states that the primary goal of the animal slaughtering industry is to ensure that killing animals is “efficient and profitable.” Furthermore, in Grandin’s report, she explains that additional protections for animals about to be slaughtered cannot be “cost-justified”, when benefits to animal welfare cannot be assessed as profitable.[7] The few statutes that exist to protect animals from unnecessary violence, suffering, and torture at the hands of humans directly correlate with the ways that we use animals. In other words, the animal welfare laws that are supposed to exist to give basic welfare protections to the billions of animals used annually in the United States for food, research, and entertainment – essentially protect the value of the animal in human terms. This is because, in the eyes of the law, if killing, torturing, enslaving, or exploiting a nonhuman animal will in any way provide humans with food, entertainment, or a research subject – then such exploitation is considered “necessary.”[8] Therefore, legally, even the most trivial of human desires, such as the desire of certain humans to eat the gourmet food, Foie Gras – can justify the following practice as necessary to create the Foie Gras: Farmers shove a tube down the throat of a duck or goose in order to force feed it until the animal’s liver is excessively large; then upon slaughtering the bird this sickly liver is considered to be the delicacy necessary to make such gourmet food.[9]

However, in reality, human consumption of Foie Gras is by no means necessary. In fact, no animal flesh or any other animal product is necessary for human survival. The American Dietetic Association states that, “appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”[10] Furthermore, William C. Roberts, M.D., Professor and Director of the Baylor University Medical Center, and Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, stated in this peer-reviewed journal,

Thus, although we think we are one and we act as if we are one, human beings are not natural carnivores. When we kill animals to eat them, they end up killing us because their flesh, which contains cholesterol and saturated fat, was never intended for human beings, who are natural herbivores.[11]

Evidence supporting Dr. Roberts’ belief that humans are natural herbivores can be seen in the achievements of ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek. In 2003, Jurek, who follows a completely plant-based vegan diet, won his fifth straight Western States Endurance Run – a competition where athletes run for 100 miles through the mountainous, wilderness trails of the northwestern United States .[12] Health benefits aside, some people would say that they enjoy the taste of nonhuman animal flesh so much that it is necessary to their personal fulfillment and enjoyment in life; however, in doing so, these people often fail to consider that there are numerous vegetarian meat alternatives readily available in most American supermarkets and there are literally thousands of vegetarian recipes that are extremely varied in their taste and texture – and are also very healthy.[13] Despite what the mainstream media and the meat, dairy, and egg industries would have people believe - it is entirely unnecessary for American humans to enslave and violently kill ten billion nonhuman land animals a year for food; yet the law justifies such killing as necessary. Therefore, our system which treats living, breathing, feeling, sentient animals as property in order to most efficiently exploit these animals, can claim it is necessary to enslave and kill these animals – but the claim that it is indeed necessary is undoubtedly flawed.

Not only is there a flaw in the argument that we are justified in legitimatizing the slaughter of animals because it is supposedly necessary; there is also an inherent flaw in the legal notion that animals should be considered property. In order to illustrate the reasoning behind my statement that assigning property status to animals is flawed, I’d like to use the following example --- If you were to look at a tractor lawn mower, you might say that such a tool is necessary to efficiently mow a large grassy area in a park. Let’s say a human owns this tractor lawn mower, and it is their property. The tractor lawn mower has no value other than how it is valued in its utility to its owner; because if the mower wasn’t capable of performing its function as a tool used to mow grass, then humans would assign the mower little or no value; and it is highly likely that no other living creature would value the ineffective mower either. However, let’s say that an animal is owned by a human, and this animal is intended to be raised and used for its fur, to make a coat. To the human who owns the animal, a property value can be assigned to the animal based upon how much the human owner can sell the skin and fur of the animal. In this example, let’s say that activists broke into the owner’s fur farm and spray painted the fur of the animal – thus making the animal’s fur valueless to the owner, because the owner couldn’t sell the animal’s fur to anyone with spray paint all over it. Then, the animal, much like the lawn mower, possesses little to no value to the human or human institution which owns either piece of property. Whereas the mower is essentially valueless to all life when it cannot perform its function to serve humans by being used as a tool to cut grass – the life of the animal who would be used by a human that profits from selling its fur, still has a value. Perhaps, the animal is not worth anything to the owner; but the animal still values its own life, it doesn’t wish to keel over and die just because its flesh isn’t valuable to the fur industry anymore. The animal has a brain, and is conscious, is able to perceive the world, and possesses sensory perception. The animal values its life, actively pursues survival, and avoids death – regardless of whether its human owner values the life of the animal or not. Given that an animal values its life whether or not humans do, and that a lawn mower does not value its existence, and has no sensory perception, nor is valued by any life if humans do not value it – is it reasonable to attribute both the animal and the lawn mower the same status of property in the eyes of the law? By attributing a property status to animals, we effectively deny that the life of an animal has any inherent value other than how it can be used to profit its owner.

In conclusion, our society uses enculturation to convince nearly all members of our society, beginning from the moment of their birth, that the animal flesh, eggs, and milk products that we consume are somehow wholesome and good tasting – when the truth is that these products are the end result of a violent system of unnecessary exploitation that exists solely to profit from the enslavement and slaughter of nearly ten billion chickens, pigs, and cows each year. By assigning property status to animals, we are able to maintain this system of exploitation, because when nonhuman animals are viewed only as property, they can be used most efficiently as a profitable commodity: when companies start to concern themselves with animal welfare any more so than is necessary to exploit animals most efficiently – then these companies will not be as profitable. Therefore, if we believe that life is in fact valuable and important, then we must choose to reject systems that treat sentient creatures  as objects that exist to be used as commodities to be exploited for profit;  and there is one clear and effective way that each individual can do this – by choosing to abstain from consuming animal products and going VEGAN!


[1] Best, Steven.  The Son of Patriot Act and the Revenge on Democracy. Impact Press, June-July 2003.

[2] Animal Liberation Front. Frontline Factsheet. 1998.

[3] This figure is calculated by adding up the total number slaughtered from each of the commodity summary reports for broilers, layers, turkeys, ducks, cattle/calves, pigs, and sheep that are published by the USDA – National Agricultural Statistics Service. The total number of these types of animals killed in 2001 by the food industry was approximately 9.9 billion.

[4] Francione, Gary. Introduction to Animal Rights. Temple University Press, 2000.

[5] Humane Farming Assocation. Slaughterhouse Abuse Factsheet. 2002.

[6] Francione, Gary. Animals, Property, and the Law. Temple University Press, 1995.

[7] Grandin, Temple . Recommended Animal Handling Guidelines for Meat Packers. American Meat Institute, 1991.

[8] Francione, Gary. Animals, Property, and the Law. Temple University Press, 1995.

[9] Humane Society of the United States . Foie Gras Factsheet. 2003.

[10] American Dietetic Association. Position Paper on Vegetarianism. 1997.

[11] Roberts, William C. American Journal of Cardiology. Volume 66, P. 896. 1 Oct, 1990 .

[12] Schumaker, John. Ultra-tough Champ Wins Fifth Straight. The Sacramento Bee. 30 June, 2003 .

[13] Wenner, Paul & Robbins, John. Gardencuisine: Heal Yourself Through Low-fat Meatless Eating. Fireside Publishing, 1998.