If animals have rights, maybe we can't just treat them as our chattels

Key Points:

I once swore we would get pets for the children "over my dead body", yet here I am, still alive, and looking at a fish tank containing the three newest members of the household: Hammerhead, Fishey and Wuzzley. It's not that I don't like animals per se, just that I don't think it's fair to keep them — especially dogs — in a smallish inner-city setting, with a family in which the person most averse to them, i.e. myself, will end up doing almost all the caring. I barked and bellowed in the negative when asked incessantly about getting a pet, and in the delirium of being nagged, must have agreed to revisit the issue once we moved into our new house. Nek minnit I had a stonking great fish tank in my new living room, plus a big bag of pebbles, numerous bottles of fish food and instructions, which were, of course, promptly lost. I'm pretty confident that Hammerhead, Fishey and Wuzzley will remain in their tank, happily glooping around, not thinking about much or judging me for my poor housekeeping. Hopefully, the kids won't overfeed them and we will all learn how to change the water without killing the fish or each other. Other than that, the best course seems to be allowing them to get on with goldfishing, them safe in their tank, us barrelling around outside. Or is that all there is to it? Because I'm starting to wonder what is going through the minds of my new fishy housemates, the next door cat, and the numerous dogs that call this street home. That's because of a new book by a man called David Grimm, Citizen Canine.

What does it mean to have personhood
— and does a family cat or dog have it?
The book's central question is, what does it mean to have personhood — and does a family cat or dog have it? Increasingly, humans consider cats and dogs as "members of the family" — siblings, de facto children or companions. At the same time, scientists have observed (particularly in dogs) that the species can display what we might consider "human" emotions and traits including empathy, morality and ethics. Cat owners — even ferret and goat owners — can probably attest to the same. All that warm and fuzzy feeling about pets leads us into uncharted territory. They may be considered property in law at the moment, but there is a view that while animals may not be given full human rights, there should be a new category of nonhuman rights accorded them under law — something like "living property", which would fall short of the full responsibility of personhood — but only just. The issue of how to determine an animal's rights has already come before the courts. Custody suits have seen beloved pets given court-appointed lawyers to protect their best interests. Joint custody of pets exists. To harm an animal — especially a domestic one — can mean significant jail time. This has implications for other creatures of course; will their rights evolve in the same way cat and dog rights have, and will our whole conversation about what personhood is evolve along with it? For the meantime, I'm still fairly confident that I have three goldfish who need feeding and fish-tank cleaning, but not the next level of care: flashcards, music lessons and time out. Of course, having three children, I am well prepared for all that too, should the time come.