Eva Bernet Kempers (UAntwerp) delved into the legal approach towards animals in continental Europe. 

Animals have feelings and interests. Yet they are still often legally equated with objects. Researcher Eva Bernet Kempers (UAntwerp) explored how ‘animal dignity’ can act as a starting point to approach animals consistently and coherently in law.

The current legal approach towards animals is flawed. The same animal has completely different legal protection based on its classification as livestock or as a pet. ‘When you keep two chickens in one square metre as a pet, we consider it animal cruelty; whereas in the livestock industry, nine chickens are often kept in one square metre’, Bernet Kempers explains. 

This illogical situation results from the ‘instrumental value’ attributed to animals. Their ‘use’ matters for the law, not what they are. ‘So the importance of an animal is only considered through its importance to humans’, Bernet Kempers says.

At the same time, there is a growing consensus that animals should no longer be equated with objects. In her PhD thesis, Eva Bernet Kempers examined how the legal systems of continental Europe can approach beings that cannot be treated as persons or as objects. She proposes the concept of animal dignity as a central starting point for shaping human-animal relationships. 

Life and animal dignity

The concept of ‘animal dignity’ raised by Bernet Kempers is diametrically opposed to the current instrumental legal approach towards animals. The starting point is the idea that animals have an intrinsic value, independent of the value humans assign to animals. Like humans, animals strive for individual development, and the law should respect that. ‘The intrinsic value and species-specific interests of animals should always come before possible human use of animals’, Bernet Kempers explains.

Her PhD thesis shows how in recent years law in continental Europe has already taken a step in this direction by recognising animals as ‘beings with dignity’ entitled to special protection, and that they are distinguished from ‘objects’ in the civil code. ‘Once we abandon the binary division of legal person and object, we see that animals actually already possess certain “basic” rights’, Bernet Kempers argues. The animal dignity concept can become a normative guide to strengthen those basic animal rights, ‘in such a way as to ensure the respectful treatment of animals with regard to their species-specific development’.