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The Law Must See Animals As More than Just Property

One of the driving issues behind the field of animal law is the disconnect between the law’s description of animals as “property” with the understanding so many of us have that animals are much more than that—most of the tens of millions of Americans who share their homes with dogs, cats, and other animal companions would agree that they are, most definitely, members of the family.

We often say that the law simply has been slow to catch up with our modern ideas about animals. But it seems we can in fact trace this understanding of animals-as-family very far back indeed, toward the beginnings of history. Consider the ancient Egyptians.

The cover story of the November issue of National Geographic magazine is about Egypt’s animal mummies—the pets of the pharaohs. And while I’m strict with myself about check-out line impulse buys (due to my ongoing struggle to overcome a pricey magazine addiction), I could not resist the allure of the rather adorable, linen-wrapped cat mummy who serves as the issue’s cover model.

The mummies of ancient Egypt included not only cats and dogs, but many unexpected animals as well—crocodiles, ibises, monkeys, raptors, fish, even elephants. Mind you, revered as these animals were in death, it was still largely a dog’s life for most—the most numerous mummies, buried by the millions, were sacrificed specifically so that they could be made votive offerings to the gods. But for the animal companions of the pharaohs, places of honor were reserved in the afterlife. The article describes a “lovingly preserved” hunting dog who, as a royal pet, “would have been fed nibbly bits and spoiled rotten….When it died, it was interred in a specially prepared tomb in the Valley of the Kings.”

I make this point not to over-generalize about the Egyptian reverence for life (considering how many animals were dispatched for the mummy business), but to note that their complicated relationships with animals—killing many with impunity, cherishing others as beloved family members—were not so very unlike our own. Our truly ancient history of counting certain animals among our family members makes the legal conceit of animals-as-property seem all the more improbable.

Of course, today’s animals do have their fair share of legal victories to wag about. On Tuesday, San Francisco supervisors passed a ban on declawing cats, and a couple of weeks ago, New York Governor David Paterson signed a bill that ensured that the state’s shelter animals cannot be gassed and must be euthanized humanely. In slow but significant advances like these, popping up around the country month after month, year after year, the law is recognizing that animals have their own interests in this life, and that it is our duty to ensure that the law respects them even at the moments of their deaths.

Sadly for most of Egypt’s animal mummies, the ultimate respect came to them only after their deaths. But their legacy continues to inspire us, thousands of years later. The National Geographic article tells us that the animal mummies are one of the most popular exhibits in all of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. As for me, it’s a lovely comfort to imagine my own departed animals now happily prowling the hereafter with the felines of the pharaohs, in the Valley of the Kings.


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