Here’s the Problem with Declaring Animals as Legal Beings in India

The Uttarakhand High Court needs to answer many questions before such a declaration can be implemented effectively.

6 min read
Hindi Female

On 4 July, the Uttarakhand High Court in its judgment in the case of Narayan Dutt Bhatt v Union of India & Others (Writ Petition (PIL) No. 43 of 2014), effectively granted legal personhood to “the entire animal kingdom including avian and aquatic,” with the citizens in the State of Uttarakhand being declared “persons in loco parentis as the human face for the welfare/protection of animals.”

The public interest litigation was originally filed to regulate movement of horse carts between India and Nepal, but its scope was expanded to include animal welfare.

The judgment by the bench, comprising Justice Rajiv Sharma and Justice Lok Pal Singh, is in keeping with the Uttarakhand High Court’s trend of bestowing non-traditional persons with personhood.


In 2017, a bench, comprising Justice Sharma and Justice Alok Singh, declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna to be legal persons, with the Chief Secretary of the State of Uttarakhand and the Advocate General of the State of Uttarakhand as persons in loco parentis. However, the judgment was later stayed by the Supreme Court.

A Positive Step, but One That Raises Many Questions

While the Uttarakhand High Court has been using its judgments to secure environmental interests, the question of expanding the definition of legal persons to include rivers, and now animals, involves a deeply contentious issue in law and philosophy.

The judgment declaring all zoological species as legal persons, with the citizens within Uttarakhand as persons in loco parentis, is a positive step toward the protection of wildlife and domesticated animals.

The judgment included several important directions to the local and state government in the protection of horses and other cattle – such as regulating the movement of horse-carts through licensing, and ensuring their healthcare and welfare.

While these directions are valid in ensuring the implementation of our existing statutes against animal cruelty, by holding errant government authorities accountable, the decision of the Court to issue the directions from a platform of legal personhood of animals is of particular interest in this judgment.

Persons under law are divided into natural persons (human beings) and juridical persons (entities which have been endowed with legal personality such as companies and foundations).


SC: “Life” Includes All Forms of Life

The Court relied on earlier judgments of the Supreme Court which recognised the rights of persons such as inanimate religious idols to be juridical persons, and extending the principles to include animals and their right to dignity and protection, based on the Supreme Court’s judgment in Hiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, Amritsar v. Shri Som Nath Dass & Ors. which held that juristic persons were created for “subserving the needs of and faith in society.”

In extending legal personhood to animals, the Court relied on the decision in Animal Welfare Board of India v. A. Nagaraja & Ors. in which the Supreme Court had recognized the freedoms of animals included the freedom from hunger, fear and distress, physical and thermal discomfort, freedom from pain and injury and freedom to express normal behavioural patterns, all of which must be read into the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

The court reiterated the SC’s interpretation of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, with the effect the word “life” includes “all forms of life, including animal life, which are necessary for human life.”

The court also cited Justice Douglas’ dissenting opinion in the case of Sierra Club v. Morton, Sec. Int. (United States Supreme Court) deciding on who has the right to sue in environmental cases, who explained that just like ships were granted legal personality for maritime purposes, people who had a meaningful relationship with a river and the life it sustains, such as fishermen or zoologists, must be “able to speak for the values which the river represents and which are threatened with destruction”.


The judgment states that “the animals including avian and aquatics have a right to life and bodily integrity, honour and dignity. Animals cannot be treated merely as property”.

The Court quoted Jane Nosworthy, an expert in artificial legal persons, in putting forth the notion that “the inclusion of animals in the community of legal persons will dignify them by forcing humans to see and value animals for themselves, rather than seeing them simply as the object of property rights, or as something for humans to ‘use and abuse’.

Signs of an Emerging Trend

The trend to vest environmental bodies such as the Earth, rivers, and animals has been an emerging trend in environmental legislation and jurisprudence, globally.

Ecuador was the first country to grant rights to nature under its Constitution, including “the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution.”

In 2010, Bolivia legislated the “Law of the Rights of Mother Earth” which include detailed rights vested in the environment, and protection from commercial exploitation and ecological degradation.

In 2014, New Zealand enacted the Te Urewara Act, which recognized the Te Urewara national park as a legal entity with ““all the rights, powers, duties and liabilities of a legal person.”


In March 2017, New Zealand recognized the Whanganui River, as being a legal person, after a 140-year long litigation by the Maori Tribe of Whanganui for whom the river is their ancestor, and eligible for protection as other members of their tribe; the rights of the river are to be exercised through two appointed guardians.

‘All Animals Are Equal, but Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others’

The rights of individual animals, rights of certain types of animals, and rights of animals as “Kingdom Animalia” need to be distinguished when expanding the legal personhood.

Some species of animals such as cattle and poultry are considered property, and right to the ownership of that property is protected under the Constitution. Whereas other species such as fish, are allowed to be commercially exploited within prescribed quotas.

Several species are protected from all poaching under the Wildlife Protection Act, with criminal sanction for violations. For once, one can quote Orwell literally: “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” 

It is important to distinguish which animals and in what capacity are recognized as legal persons, for conceptual clarity, and demands sophisticated legislation to truly give teeth to the broad sweeping strokes of rights-based declarations made by the Courts.


The Indian judiciary while deciding environmental petitions, has often relied on the ‘doctrine of public trust’, which states that the State is merely the trustee and not the owner of natural resources within its territory, which it holds in trust for its current and future citizens.

Wildlife including both plants and animals are resources thus held in trust by the government. Treating wildlife as a person would therefore require the establishment of guardians over those persons, who will represent and protect their legal interests.

The rights we consider to be fundamental or granted by law, are a result of legal evolution and do not exist as static timeless rules. In fact, they are fairly recent.

In the interest of commerce, we have vested companies and ships with legal personality, nationality and rights which can be enforced before a Court.

Persons can be property (such as companies), and there are persons which cannot be owned (such as humans; it is abhorrent but also true that this is again a fairly recent legal development). Therefore it is not inconceivable to extend legal personhood to animals and their rights to bodily autonomy and liberty.

If we are to truly recognize all animals universally as legal persons having rights against exploitation, and being entitled to protection, we would have to completely overhaul our legal system. We would have to eliminate the use of animal labour and bodies for our agricultural, medicinal, nutritional and recreational needs. 

On the other hand, an important criticism of the project to grant legal personhood to animals, is that by forcing animals to be governed as persons under man-made legal systems, we continue to assert human supremacy over other species.

Not to mention that such a decision could be extended to plant species, leading to a paradigm shift in how humans interact with nature.

However, if legislated precisely to include clear guardianship and representation of animals under our existing environmental laws, the concept of animal persons could prove to be an effective wildlife protection tool."

(The author is Research Assistant, Chair of US American Law, Universität zu Köln, Candidate for International Masters in Environment Science and is an advocate with the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa. The author tweets at @mrinshin. The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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