KEYNOTE PRESENTATION: LESLI BISGOULD
Kangaroos, seals and all animals are property in law, and have been since Western notions of property law were devised. In modern times, that property status has become insufficient and it is subject to dispute in democracy’s various institutions (i.e. academia, media, law). In the many decades since Darwin first said “evolution”, various branches of science have eroded the lines that have traditionally been drawn to distinguish between humans and other animals, and to justify the former’s exploitation of the latter. As knowledge accumulates about the fundamental similarities between humans and other animals, a new notion of respect for animals is emerging in Western societies. It creates pressure to re-examine the out-dated assumptions on which current laws are based, and to re-examine current laws themselves.
The Canadian seal hunt is a good example of how legal issues change with changing knowledge. In the 19th century, the legal dispute in seal hunting was over conflicting claims to pans of seals between highly competitive sealing vessels. The practice then was to trap many animals on a large pan of ice, club them, then leave to pursue others, and return to the pan to skin and claim the first seals later. But as the ice pans floated, other vessels would find them and claim the seals for themselves.
There was never any concern in the 19th century jurisprudence regarding whether it is appropriate, or how it is justifiable, to allocate ownership in individual animals – questions from which modern animal rights law emerges – only as to how to allocate that ownership among competing claimants.
Late in the 20th century, the emerging notion of respect for animals put unprecedented scrutiny on the hunt and its images became controversial. In modern legal disputes, the interests of the seals themselves figure centrally. Legal issues have arisen in respect of such matters as the age of seals subject to commercial exploitation, the manner in which seals may be killed, the efforts sealers are supposed to take to ensure animals are dead before they are skinned, and the freedom of expression of individuals who wish to observe the hunt, gather information about it and disseminate it to the public.
Yet even today, law still clings to the notion that animals are property to be exploited for the benefit of their human owners, even if it now purports to restrain the suffering to which animals are put in the course of that exploitation. Therefore, while the language and apparent concerns of modern laws seem superficially to protect animal interests, any meaningful effort to bring that protection to fruition collides with their entrenched status as things. This collision of perspectives is evident in Canada’s approach to seals, just as it is in Australia’s approach to kangaroos. Both are iconic animals who, beloved though they may be on the one hand, are painfully destroyed on the other, in staggering numbers, for profit or convenience.
Lesli’s lecture will review the above ideas, raising questions about the extent to which law reflects modern attitudes and knowledge toward animals, while exploring the role law plays in effecting change in this context.