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Should dogs be citizens? It’s not as crazy as you think.

"We pledge allegiance..."
"We pledge allegiance..."
(Michael Pettigrew/Shutterstock)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

What if domestic animals — pets such as dogs and cats as well livestock like cows and chickens — were granted citizenship rights? That may sound like a crazy question, but Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka thinks it's a critically important one.

Kymlicka, a professor at Queen's University, is a well-regarded figure in modern political philosophy. He's also the author, along with writer Sue Donaldson, of Zoopolis, a book making the case for animal citizenship. Their basic premise is simple: animals are already part of our society, as pets and work animals, therefore we should formally recognize them as such.

That's not just a head-in-the-clouds thought experiment. We already have basic laws forbidding animal abuse and regulating industrial slaughterhouses. But, as anyone who has visited an animal shelter or thought about the ethics of what they eat can attest, we as a society have not come anywhere close to solving the problem of animal mistreatment. If we really want to improve animals' lives, Kymlicka and Donaldson argue, we need to stop thinking in terms of merely treating animals better. Rather, we need to acknowledge on a fundamental level that animals are a part of society and deserve to be treated as such. That leads you, however improbable it might sound, to citizenship.

Kymlicka and I chatted over the phone about why he believes we ought to make animals citizens, how that would work in practice, and what a world in which animals have equal rights would look like. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: The idea of animal citizenship sounds a bit strange. What does it mean for a dog to be a citizen? What rights do they get?

Will Kymlicka: The first idea is that we've brought dogs and other domesticated animals into our society. That's a decision we have made — to domesticate animals — and the very term domestication indicates that's process of incorporating them into our world. So we need to ask: what do we owe them in virtue of the fact that we've brought them into our world?

We owe them membership. We need to recognize domesticated animals as members of our society. And citizenship is the legal and political term that we have historically used to recognize membership. The ways in which humans stake claims to membership is by staking claims to citizenship. It's our legal and political tool for recognizing it.

That's the starting point: domesticated animals are members [of our society], and citizenship is our legal and political tool for recognizing membership. So what are the characteristics of citizenship in the human case, and to what extent can the work in the case of animals?

Citizenship in the human case is typically thought of a set of rights and responsibilities. [Co-author Donaldson and I] go through each one of them and ask when they're applicable to animals. We end up arguing that yes, most of them are [applicable to animals], quite directly.

ZB: What about rights like voting and free speech?

WK: I would back up a bit. We need to think about what the purpose of these rights are.

In the case of the right to vote, the idea is twofold. Voting is, first of all, a way of making sure that our interests get counted in the public good. Because we're members of society, we have a right for our interests to be included in the common good, the national interest, whatever you call it. Secondly, it's a way for individuals to be active in shaping the common rules that we live under. Habermas calls this "coauthoring the laws that govern us."

We need to see voting as a mechanism to fulfill these deeper ideas. The right to vote doesn't apply to animals, but the deeper ideas behind them do. So we need to find mechanisms that ensure their interests are counted in determining the public good. And we need a way for them to have a say in matters that affect them. It won't be through voting, so we need to find other ways of soliciting and responding to their preferences.

world's tallest cow

Blosom is the world's tallest cow, standing at 6'4". (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images)

That may sound difficult, even a bit mysterious. But we've been confronted with that challenge already in the human case. There are going to be some human for whom voting is not the right mechanism for achieving these deeper goals. [Take] citizenship for people with cognitive disabilities. Giving them a vote is not necessarily going to mean anything to them. But we need to find other ways of enabling them to have a say over their lives.

In the cognitive disability literature, there's a discussion about how you can bring choices, meaningful choices into people's lives so that they're able to experiment with different possible activities and relationships. We think a lot of that stuff is applicable to animals.

So I wouldn't get hung up on voting. We need to think about it as a mechanism, and even in the human case we're going to need more than just voting to achieve this deeper ideal of counting interests and enabling people to participate.

ZB: So what kind of mechanisms would be appropriate to represent the interests of domesticated animals in society?

WK: I don't think any country has figured this out. But in some countries, provinces, states, and cities, you have animal advocates — people who are authorized to sit in at various decision-making bodies and to speak on behalf of animals.

In the Netherlands and several other European countries, they have animal rights parties. [The Dutch] party has actually elected representatives in the national parliament. This is a feasible option in countries that have proportional representation.

dutch party for the animals

Marianne Thieme, leader of the Dutch Party for the Animals, celebrates her party's first election to the Dutch parliament in 2006. (Michel Porro/Getty Images

And those animal rights parties — they have elected members both in the national legislature and the European Parliament — are very effective spokespersons for the interests of animals.

You could also think about dedicated animal prosecutors and police officers. You could think of these all as first steps towards rethinking our legal and political system to find places where we can ensure animal interests are counted. But, as I said, those are very modest first steps, as no country has embraced the idea that domesticated animals are members in a full sense.

ZB: So what's wrong with just saying we'll take a number of steps to protect animal rights without going so far as to declare them citizens?

WK: As I've said, the core of our theory is the idea of membership. It's a rich concept if you think about it seriously: it's the idea that domestic animals belong here. It's where we disagree with one strain of animal rights theory, which says we should extinguish domesticated animals because it was a mistake ever to bring them in.

We need to create a shared interspecies society which is responsive to the interests of both its human and animal members. That means that it's not just a question of how you ensure that animals aren't abused. If we view them as members of society — it's as much their society as ours — then it changes the perspective 180 degrees. The question is no longer "how do we make sure they're not so badly treated?" We instead need to ask "what kind of relationships do they want to have with us?"

That's really a radical question. It's one we've never really bothered to ask. I think there are some domesticated animals that enjoy activities with us — I think that's clearest in the case of dogs, but it's also true of other domesticated animals whose lives are enriched by being part of interspecies activities with us. But there are other animals who, if we took what they wanted seriously, would probably choose to have less and less to do with us. I think this would be true of horses.

ZB: Presumably, research into animal psychology can help answer those questions. But if we're just thinking about what domestic animals want on a basic level, the first thing has got to be "not to be killed." So we'd have to ban meat-eating.

WK: Yeah. We can't go around eating our co-citizens.

In the animal rights circle, people sometimes debate whether it's permissible to scavenge — eat roadkill, for example. Is it OK to consume animal products when humans are not responsible for their death? I think that's so hypothetical that it's not really worth spending time on it. I think we should have a flat commitment to veganism and not get bogged down in a debate about the ethics of eating roadkill.

ZB: Veganism, not vegetarianism?

WK: From my point of view, the dairy industry is as bad for animals as the meat industry. In fact, it's just the same industry.

ZB: Could it be reformed, though? Presumably, you could think of a milk cow as an employed citizen.

WK: Yeah! We're very interested in the idea of animals as workers.

I think it's true that, in a future animal rights utopia, that there might be circumstances under which our animal co-citizens would produce beyond what they need for their own well being. These could become available, on fair terms, for humans. But we don't think it would be economically sustainable — you only get milk from cows when they're pregnant. The only way that it would be profitable to have dairy would involve violating the fundamental citizenship rights of the cows.

But workers — this is actually what I'm most interested in pursuing. It's an important part of membership in a society that we contribute to it. It's an important way in which we express our membership and on which we evaluate other people's contribution to the common good. Work is one fundamental component to that for many people.

sniffer dog hague

A sniffer dog working at the Hague. (Freek van den Bergh/AFP/Getty Images)

Can we imagine forms of work that are non-exploitative but are, indeed, expressions of membership? Genuine, full membership? We've been thinking about cases like, say, sniffer dogs at an airport. Here you have a dog with a human, they're both working. I see no reason why that couldn't be, in principle, an expression of membership for both.

But, if it's to be consistent with our citizenship model, there would also have to be workers' rights. The sniffer dog would need maximum working hours, a right to a safe environment, the right to a retirement, the right to disability pensions, and so on and so forth.

ZB: So what counts as a domesticated animal? What about an animal that's been captured in the wild, would it get citizenship as well?

WK: Citizenship is for animals who have been bred selectively over generations to be part of our society. We distinguish that very sharply from what we call exotic pets: wild animals that have been captured to be sold as pets.

That's totally wrong. We have no right to capture them, we have no right to sell them, no right to keep them as pets. There should be a complete prohibition on the capturing of wild animals for any purpose.

ZB: So how do we treat wild animals in general? Would they be something like foreign nationals or nations?

WK: Most animals are not domesticated, but we distinguish two subgroups of non-domesticated animals.

One are what's called truly wild or wilderness animals. They avoid us so far as they can, and they're trying as best as they can to live on their own habitat. We should view them as forming their own distinct peoples and nations with their own rights to territory. It's their territory, not ours, so we don't aggress on their territory, we don't settle it, we don't colonize it. The relationship should be modeled on something like international law.


Pictured: liminal animals. (Lorri Carter/Shutterstock)

The second subgroup are what we call liminal animals: to simplify, you can think of them as urban wildlife. Raccoons, pigeons, rats, mice — the non-domesticated animals that live among us, often in our homes. We can't just leave them alone like truly wild animals. We need to find a way of living in close physical proximity with them, but because they're not domesticated they can't cooperate with us. And that's what makes a meaningful idea of membership — of citizenship — possible.

So we think these liminal animals are denizens, not citizens. They have residency, and we've got to accept that they have the right to live here among us. Most of these animals no longer have anywhere else to live. That means learning to tolerate them, but duties of tolerant existence are less than duties of citizenship.

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