What does the phrase, “property status of animals” mean?

The property status of animals refers to the way that animals are treated by the legal system, which is essentially as pieces of property. Historically, animals were once treated as indistinguishable from things like furniture or appliances. They could easily be bought or sold and they had few, if any protections from abuse or cruelty. Over the years, however, animals have evolved away from that status, obtaining more rights and protections.

There is still undoubtedly immense room for progress. For example, anti-cruelty statutes theoretically protect animals from unnecessary suffering and abuse, but those statutes usually only apply in narrow circumstances. Animals that are used for food production can be confined in tiny spaces, and have their tails, beaks, or other extremities removed, all while being treated in accordance with the so called anti-cruelty laws. But animal advocates can take solace that nowadays things are at least moving in the right direction.

In the coming years, we can expect to see animals move further away from the property designation. Some attorneys have already asked courts to designate animals, specifically chimpanzees, as legal persons, complete with fundamental rights such as the right to bodily liberty. Although animals in the United States have not been granted personhood yet, the same way that corporations have, it’s the kind of legal tactic that may pay off after multiple attempts.

It’s also possible that animals will soon occupy their own special legal category, recognizing that animals are absolutely more like a person than a refrigerator–they are sentient, smart, social, and in many cases, even altruistic–but that there are still clear differences between humans and non-humans. Any distinct category for animals would almost certainly give them some basic rights while simultaneously protecting them from their “owners.”

Because is still so much progress to be made and so many opportunities to make it, animal rights law is an exciting and emerging field. Although animals may currently be confined by their property status, we all know deep down that animals are more than just something we own, and sooner or later the legal system will catch up with us.