Guest Contribution by Pfeiffer Exner, Cat Lawyer
Before my human applied to UCalgary Law, she did some work and had some meetings in Murray Fraser Hall in the summer of 2018. After one of her meetings, she took the opportunity to explore the building. As she surveyed the walls filled with pictures of graduates from previous years, she noticed that a dog's picture was included as a 2017 UCalgary Law graduate: that dog was Cashmere, Tiana Knight’s guide dog. My mom thought it was so cool that Cashmere received a spot on the wall that she took a picture of it and showed it to me when she came home. I looked at the picture and thought to myself that if a doggo can do it, then a Cat could surely do it, too! That was the day that I decided I would also study human law, alongside my mom. Here we are, almost four years later, and I am almost done my JD (I am a super-smart Cat, you know!). Time sure flies when you’re learning human law…
There is something else about Tiana’s and Cashmere’s navigation through the legal profession that warrants attention: they were a great example of the ways in which humans and non-humans flourish when they team up. These two were a team in every sense of the word!
My friend and mentor Victoria Shroff talks a lot about the urgency for humans and non-humans to coexist in this world. When I asked for her thoughts about how Tiana’s and Cashmere’s teamwork relate to the quest for legal personhood of non-human animals, Victoria pointed out that “companion animals with whom we share our homes are particularly easy examples to cite as sentient beings who contribute immeasurably to human well-being, happiness, and health.”
In the same vein as the argument that advocacy for rights is not a buffet from which we can pick and choose, I posit that access to justice cannot be limited to humans when the buffet consists of all sentient beings. For example, as a Cat I understand love and friendship, I can make logical connections when presented with information about the way things work, I feel happiness, sorrow, and physical pain. I get so happy that I snort like a piglet when my dad tickles my belly. I understand concepts like actions and consequences, and I have a strong sense of duty. When my mom stays up until very late working, I sit right by her side without fail. I know I do not have to stay up with her, but I refuse to go to bed because it is my Cat duty to help her when she needs me. I do a lot of important work around here, you know! That said, like a baby human I am still wholly dependent on my humans for food, shelter, family, and safety.
We have so much in common, yet your human laws do not recognize my needs in the same ways they recognize yours. I am marginalized.
Even so, I also know how lucky I am. Hundreds of thousands of my Canadian non-human friends are not as fortunate as me. I am not a cow who is raped by a machine over and over again, milked while pregnant until my body collapses, each of my babies stripped away at birth for slaughter. I am not beaten, and my limbs are not broken in the process of raising me for meat. I am not subjected to burns, disease, or painful surgeries in a laboratory. But if I were subjected to these things, I know that I would reach out and your laws would not be there for me. Am I making you uncomfortable? I sure hope so, because I am holding up a mirror to your faces. Animals do not have legal personhood, and this is your doing. We “lack this fundamental right, a voice to have [our] interests heard, this basic right which is a precursor to accessing justice.”
Animal rights is an access to justice issue in human law. Period.
All non-human animals “face multiple systemic barriers,” and to have a real voice these barriers need to be “shifted and lifted, to be cast aside altogether in some cases.” Victoria says that any animals affected by the outcomes of human legal cases need voices for their interests, and for this to happen, advocates can only truly represent animals' interests in court when these animals have legal standing.
Legal personhood or standing in Canada is entirely possible without sentience. Corporations and holy books are not sentient, yet they have standing. In 2021, a river in Quebec, the Muteshekau-Shipu, was granted legal standing and afforded legal rights, including rights to “flow and maintain biodiversity.” This means the river (via human advocates) can “protect itself from threats such as hydro projects, and in theory, it could sue the government.” For context, this river is situated in the ancestral homeland of the Innu, which is an indigenous people in Quebec and Labrador. It is culturally and spiritually significant to humans.
Looking at examples of what or who is granted legal standing in Canada, it seems to me that you humans just need to have something in it for yourselves to grant it. So, what if I pointed out that there IS something in it for you to give me a real voice.
Returning to the example of Tiana and Cashmere, one can see that helping one another is what made their journey through the legal profession possible. Tiana provided shelter, food, safety, and love to her friend, and her friend provided love, friendship, and invaluable guidance to her – as she could not physically see the world around her. Alone, they were just a woman and a doggo. Together, they became an inspirational force.
What do you think the world would look like without animals? All animals – large, small, domesticated, and wild – are critical components to our environment. Domesticated animals like Cashmere help humans directly. Wild animals, including birds, fish, insects, and pollinators, provide vital ongoing support to the functions of our ecosystem. No species, be it flora or fauna (yes, humans, fauna includes you!), exists in a vacuum. Harm to one is harm to all.
“[J]ustice is a sturdy tree with several branches and hollows. Animals live in, on, and near the tree. Trees are part of the biosphere in which humans live with animals. All living beings are interconnected with nature. … Animals, the tree, and humans; we all need protections, to have our needs met.”
As of 2021, over 150 American law schools, including all the top schools, offer animal law courses. Canada’s leading law schools also offer animal law courses, including UBC’s Allard Law School, where Victoria Shroff is an adjunct Professor and alongside her colleagues and students established Canada’s first pro bono animal law clinic. UCalgary Law prides itself on its innovative and forward-looking approach to teaching the law, and for the most part this pride is justified. However, students here have yet to see animal law course offerings, despite the fact that Alberta has an active agricultural sector (e.g.: “I heart Alberta beef”) and is home to wildlife habitats that are heavily impacted by the energy sector. Did you know that a dissent from one Canadian case that is often cited in animal rights cases from far and wide emerged from an Alberta Court of Appeals decision? It’s true! Chief Justice Fraser’s dissent in Reece v Edmonton expresses, among other things, that animals “must rely on humans to give voice to the truly voiceless. Thus, courts should take a generous, not impoverished, approach to the grant of public interest standing for those attempting to enforce the restrictive animal rights that do exist.”
I have gifted a copy of Victoria’s textbook to the Bennett Jones Library. If you are interested in learning more about the ways you can help to open legal doors for me and my non-human friends, check out her book: V. Victoria Shroff, Canadian Animal Law (Toronto: LexisNexis, 2021).