Animals In Law: Introduction

  • Alice Giannitrapani
  • Francesco Mangiapane


This essay opens the Special Issue of the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law dedicated to Animality, entitled “Animals in Law”. It focuses on revealing the principal issues faced in the volume, by positioning the contributors’ works into the general theoretical perspectives which shape the social discourse over animals.

1 New Debates, Old Problems

Animals have become increasingly prevalent in our modern media. They are endlessly discussed on social networks and talked about in newspapers. On television we see dog trainers at work and vets tending to rare species living in the remotest corners of the planet. In these kinds of texts man is depicted in various ways: as one who looks after the animal, who defends it, who stands by it as faithful life companion, who feeds it and who abuses it. Animals in turn are portrayed as the objects of harassment, but equally as beings that enjoy human affection and with the ability to influence choices. They can even hold rights.

In 2011 a macaque in an Indonesian nature reserve made headlines and caused a sensation after a series of selfies it had taken using camera equipment set up by a photographer went viral. The resulting furore was not just a comical (if surreal) tabloid splash destined to make the news as the result of “inexplicable coincidence” [1] but the genesis of a real legal test case that implied severe doubt over the very nature of copyright law—indeed, significant questions soon arose about the validity of copyright itself. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a well-known animal rights organization, engaged the photographer involved in a legal battle arguing that the macaque should itself be assigned copyright of the image and that any proceeds from it should be donated to the macaque community. The story finally concluded with an agreement in 2017 after the photographer agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds deriving from the photo to an association tasked with protecting the macaque community. PETA has now waived its right to appeal.

Cases like this that explore the progressive humanisation of the animal contrast with their equally widely reported counterparts which focus on the bestialisation of man. The press sensationally reports the periodic discovery in remote forests of feral children raised by animals like The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, as well as stories of (mostly) Western men who proudly recite the benefits of “The Paleo Diet”, an eating regimen that encourages a primitive nutritive model.

In this shift (and transmigration) between subjectivisation and objectification, anthropomorphism and zoomorphism, the status of men (and so of animals) is subject to continuous redefinition; their relationship on the one hand so close they almost overlap and merge into one, and on the other so distant they both exist in alternate universes of meaning.

Hence the title of this special issue, with that double meaning linking “in-laws” to “animals”. Though some essays in this collection focus on the strictly legal treatment of animals, others investigate the emotional-parental perspective and the many links between these two diverse fields which have been formed. If the legal side inevitably analyses more broadly political (but also ethical) aspects, it is clear that one cannot ignore the relational dynamics that bind animals to each other—and also to man. Animals do not in fact have family ties only with their own kind, but also with people. A person may for example talk about their dog as if it was their own child, a baby and a cat may seem as brothers in their parents’ eyes, and even grandparents are sometimes willing to recognize their interspecies grandchildren [7].

2 Subjective Variations and Collective Identity

To speak of animals means, inevitably, to also speak of man—and for a number of different reasons [7]. Above all others this is simply because animals and people often come directly into contact with each other through their daily routines. In such cases the animal is no mere receptor of commands to which it can only respond through the passive obeyance and execution of each and every one. The complexity and refinement of the communication strategies that can be established between humans and non-humans, as illustrated by different essays in this collection, easily redeem the beast from the stereotype of the Pavlovian dog. The domestic dog observed by Pozzato for example proves itself a sentient being endowed with memory and is a complex enunciator, capable of implementing a series of narrative programs, as well as strategies of (persuasive) manipulation towards its master. The dog in this example wants to convince its owners to come back and play, but it also wants to “make them passionate”, so behaving as a constituent actant in attempting to put that passion into play. Not only that, but once its attempt fails, the dog becomes the bearer of “pathemic modulations”, as the author calls them, which are quite similar to human ones.

Similarly the cat mentioned by Marsciani which succeeds only through its eyes and posture to “do” something to its master, seduces him by inducing him to feed it. In other words, between human and non-human, just like in human relations, precise “communicative pacts” are created, as the author says. Some of these pacts require the co-presence of the two actants of communication (something which is clearly the case with domestic animals), in other instances they require their absence, as in the case of the deer, again cited by Marsciani, which almost boasts a “right” not to be looked at and not to be bothered by the human subject who, walking through the woods, intends to scrutinize its behavior. Here we see that animal rights are not “rights” only by virtue of human laws which require animals to be respected rather than tortured or which provide for the possibility of raising or hunting them. Animal rights are are also rights formed from habits, unwritten norms, attitudes and behaviours that are each negotiated in various situations between the two different species; species endowed both with their strategic rationality, their pathemic moods, their aesthesic re-adjustments or perhaps, in other words, their “humanity”.

In second place, discussing the animal kingdom means to also speak of the human one because through discussions which have become established around beasts we can help to define the relationships between individuals or groups. Here we return to a fundamental theme which cuts across different essays in this collection—that of identity. To take the most obvious example of what is fundamental to the question, we may consider vegetarianism (Berkmanienė, Martinelli; Leone), an increasingly popular way of life followed for health reasons but perhaps above all ethical ones in the refusal of food (and other products—clothing for example) which derive from sheep and cattle among others. Vegetarians deny the bestial traits of the animal and so consider it as an equal. By comparing its ingestion to a cannibalistic act, approaching the beast not as an unclassified entity but instead a quasi-man allows the animal to rise to a similar trophic level. Within this framework, cannibalism is just an extreme form of the eating of sentient beings, and is a universal taboo; yet anthropophagous practices are in fact found in various forms even in our own modern societies. Films and TV series explicitly mention cannibalism, many campaigns in defense of vegetarianism reference it and its existence is flaunted and encouraged by men, women and children during Halloween activities—and the staging of these practices only sets into play, once again, discussions of the boundaries between humanity and animality (Giannitrapani).

In opposition (though perhaps in less widely disseminated terms) there are also communities based on what might be termed anti-animalism, as is the case of the Inuit community mentioned by Battistini, who base their very identity, above all, on the tradition of seal hunting. Following the same form as the debates which surround the circus world, bullfighting and zoos, accusations of barbaric activity which is perpetrated in the name of tradition are answered with the reasoning that these are activities which safeguard cultural heritage. These are battles typically fought with “likes” on social media which often fulfill the role of a megaphone, managing to give voice to the usual suspects but also to lesser-known actors who rise to star status for their day in the media sun as a result of something “going viral”. In both cases of vegetarianism and the Inuit it is clear that the identities of small and large groups will meet and clash around the subject of animals and will define themselves in oppositional terms. According to the typically structuralist and Lotmanian adage, these strategies of differentiation contribute to the creation of a homogeneous self.

Thirdly, to speak of animals means also to speak of man because observing communication strategies between animals allows us to hold a mirror up to the communicative strategies that humans use. As a whole genre of traditional Zoosemiotic studies demonstrates [9], animal language is highly specialized, and, as Pennisi and Giallongo illustrate in their contribution, among some species there are even refined referendum systems in which individuals can express votes and preferences, helping to establish more (and sometimes less) democratic decision-making processes. Animality is thus a field of study with deep political significance, a political value that sometimes emerges in explicit terms as in the case just cited, and at other times less obviously as in the case of individual or collective food policies—which we have already briefly touched upon. Nutrient choices, furthermore, can be correlated within well-defined political guidelines, as cited by Berkmanienė and Martinelli.

3 Perspectives

The essays contained in this volume exemplify just how many different investments of value and meaning can be had in relation to animals. They can be seen as quasi-subjects with the ability to manipulate (Marsciani, Pozzato), as object-beasts which are killed for food, or as beings whose rights are fought for at all costs based on arguments of ethics, religion and environmental sustainability (Battistini, Berkmanienė and Martinelli, Giannitrapani, Leone). These investments of value and meaning clearly depend on specific conceptions of animality and on points of view (variable in time, in space and also in relation to who is observing) relating to the world surrounding us. A “point of view” in this sense is to be understood not only as how things physically appear, but also as a way of framing in more general terms the facts, phenomena and stories that in some way encompass animals. Equally this does not mean having “a” world—in the sense of one single world—whose meaning varies from the point of view of those who frame it and attribute meaning to it, but many different worlds—because each is defined by the relationships that give them life and from the various points of view (human and non-human) associated with them [12].

The change of perspective offered in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and analyzed in the essay by Isabella Pezzini is, in this sense, emblematic. On the one hand, it is a perfect example of what was understood by the Russian formalists—and by Šklovskij [11] in particular—as “estrangement”, or a challenge to the accepted perspective which is able to provoke new visions and question those apparently obvious, commonplace and automatically accepted mechanisms. On another level, the story speaks of the human and non-human, setting these boundaries in crisis and casting light on their ambiguities, but also illustrating the fact that transformations are always, once again, structurally relational. Gregor becomes a cockroach, but he perceives, he hears, he feels. Is the “bestial” behavior his then, or that of his (ex-)relatives who turn out to be cynical and hardly minded to accept the differing forms another might take?

From this example another grand theme emerges with links to animality: the many different ways there are to conceive of the body and the soul. Interiority and exteriority reveal themselves not as given entities, but as the outcomes of interactions and developments, mutant and mutable. What is at stake, in other words, are the ontologies from which the basis of different visions of the world are formed [2] and these are brought into play to a greater or lesser extent by each article in the collection. The animist view (a vision adopted by the animal rights activist), where a difference of bodies is recognised but a similarity of souls between human and non-human is postulated, is contrasted by naturalist visions which consider people and animals to share similar characteristics on the physical plane, yet totally different ones in the inner realm. Analogic conceptions relating to the body and soul place men and animals on different levels and are flanked by totemic visions, meaning human and non-human alike become similar both externally and internally.

This latter classification is relevant to the phenomena of the cat meme which Marino and Thibault focus on in their contribution. Various physical and behavioural characteristics of the cat have allowed the cat-totem to become a sort of “hyper-meme”, as the authors define it, as well as being a metaphorical synthesis of the characteristics of the modern Internet user. The boundaries between human and non-human once again become blurred: is it man taking on the characteristics of the cat, or vice versa? To establish this is unimportant: what matters is the resemblance of certain traits (even physical) that make it possible to transfer characteristics from one to another: the Internet user is, in a certain sense, “stupid” (perhaps even arrogant) just like a cat and the cat “behaves” like man. In this sense the lolcats, a typology of Internet cat imagery captioned with a deliberately incorrect form of feline English, are emblematic. The so-called lolspeak to which the authors refer is nothing more than an animal language created by man and attributed to the beast, the result of an implicit word proxy that gives life to an ironic game of simulation (the cat simulates speaking in a human-like language, man simulates a belief and enjoyment in its existence in return).

This example helps to demonstrate how seemingly unimportant texts such as the Internet meme can turn out to be information-packed case studies which can help to explain much deeper social, cultural and identity dynamics. A similar situation presents itself with cartoons which, as Mangiapane highlights in his essay, can prove equally interesting as experiments of thought and as representations of the modern myth, as understood by Lévi-Strauss, through which our deepest social aporias can be staged and reconciled—albeit for the briefest of moments within their stories. Thus a father, a mother and two little piglets can come to epitomise the traditional, conservative human family roles, but on closer inspection it can also epitomise the crisis of the family and its slow destruction at the hands of modern life. In this sense, animated cartoons follow a long fairytale tradition, which, from the fables of The Fox and the Grapes to The Ant and the Grasshopper, have always found fertile ground in the metaphorical transposition of animals into which human habits, behaviours, vices and virtues can be manifested. The cartoon, in this sense, is a model story. On another level, mother, father and the little piglets can also be seen as a proud proclamation of swine identity in which the physical animality of the characters isn’t hidden as if it were the manifestation of a less successful version of humanity, but rather it stands as a proud example of unselfconsciousness to us all (remembering how pigs grunt without embarrassment and play freely in the mud—though protected at all times by their Wellington boots).

The paradigm within which we will move in this collection is therefore that of Zoosemiotics, but as will be evident from this brief introduction, a Zoosemiotics which runs parallel with the more traditional view and which must be understood in a broader and more nuanced sense that brings into focus the many methods of communication adopted by animals (the so-called animal language) and what might be termed a Zoosemiotics 2.0 [8] incorporating the many and varied discourses (food, literary, musical, legal etc.) in which animality can be found in its various forms. The texts submitted for analysis are therefore diverse and range from the ethnographic observation of animal behavior, the manifestation of animality on the Internet and the analysis of cartoons and TV series to the investigation of literary stories, ancient musical texts and modern legislative measures.

4 From Society to Institution and Back

The impact of social discourse over animals on legal systems is the focus of this volume. Every prospect of animal legislation calls into question the issue of manhood’s specific position with respect to the otherness represented by animality. As both Ricca and Jacoviello recall, the fairytales (Aesop) and, later, the medieval bestiaries have been playing the role of means through which positioning humans over a continuum with the beasts. Having acknowledged the loss of pregnancy of the names of the animals after the fall of man from the earthly paradise, the bestiaries, for example, are called to put into question the creation. Animals mean manhood, because, with it, they keep a continuity of substance and spirit. By looking in the mirror of the animal representation, one will thus sneeringly laugh over his own condition, defeating the vices (degraded to a feral impulse to mock), or, on the contrary, indicating common destinies (the perfection of the panther). Approaching, as happens in the Middle Ages, these correspondences is, already in itself, a sign of change: the bestiaries, in this sense, can be considered as devices for mapping the entire medieval society looking for its own political and legal reorganization. Rethinking animals is, in short, rethinking society. Ricca suggests in his interesting historical-philosophical itinerary on the “ridiculous” side of the natural rights embodied by the animals, that the whole western juridical system constitutes itself by attributing animal features to the Other. On the one hand, it does so by generalizing more and more its scope of action (up to incorporate the Other, now incarnated by the savages, now by the women), on the other, by returning the identikit of its advocate (western white male) depicted by difference with this same otherness. A theoretical hypothesis of such level is raised thanks to examples taken from the musical tradition (proposed by Jacoviello in his essay), aimed at specifically showing the functioning of the semiotic machine of “reversing mirror” whose animals are claimed to be carriers.

In the present time, the outcomes of these processes can be recognized. In this regard, the contribution of Massimo Leone, who intervenes with a “coming out” about his conversion to veganism, stands out. Leone’s work is important for various reasons. He claims the progressive role of western legislation on the affirmation of natural rights, positioning the issue of veganism within an ideal path of enlargement of the juridical community, in an itinerary that brings together into a single trajectory of liberation the great battles for civil rights—above all the abolition of slavery in America—and the current campaigns against animal exploitation. In common, these battles have a commitment over the limits of interpretation [3], betting on the “resistance” of facts, of Nature, to the aberrant explanations that the promoters of speciesism encamp against the pain of the neighbor.

The vegan claim emerges, however, not only as a social quest but also a personal position. This is why, the author appeals to the primacy of the rational argumentation but also testifies his own existential ethical commitment. By converting one marks, first of all, a radical discontinuity with the own self antecedent to conversion: eating a slice of salami, a practice considered banal before, turns into shameful, revealing itself as the result of the scandal of the pain and death of the neighbor. Moreover, it reveals disgusting, since the conversion even involves the perception of the self and of the world. Having acknowledged the radical nature of such a shift, a further problem arises, linked to the rhetorical and political choices to be activated up to support such position. Leone advocates the limelight of a vegan liberalism, which, on the one hand, is founded on the awareness of the primacy of the arguments and ethical positions of the vegan choice but, on the other, aims to facilitate in the neighbor, and hopefully in the majority of citizens, the acceptance of such a primacy, by respecting his autonomy and freedom, until then.

5 Sex with Animals

As an ideal match to the works just mentioned, focused on revealing the general semiotic mechanism that regulates the relationship between man and animals, generating and at the same time constantly re-articulating the social and legal structure, comes an essay, like the one by Giuditta Bassano, which aims at investigating, in a comparative spirit, a specific case, that of zoophilia, as it is regulated in the legal systems of Denmark, Germany and Italy. Such a tense domain is particularly suitable for revealing the system’s faults. Bassano reports the remarks of Singer [10], in this regard. The philosopher reflects on how, in a strongly secularized society like the current one, the taboo of sex between men and animals still resists. Nevertheless, such an idea can be claimed to be born with the man, if it is true that this kind of practices have been attested already since the Bronze Age in the representation they are given in some graffiti, passing through the Greek culture until arriving, along the whole history of Western culture, to the contemporary cinematographic representations (King Kong). On the other hand, legal systems are regularly called to intervene on such cases: in rural communities, eventualities of sexual relations between men and cows, sheep, goats etc. are not rare. How to think about this kind of relationship? In this regard, Singer recalls how, according to the enunciative context and the subjectivities involved, such kind of affectivity may be less scandalous than it appears at first sight. Suffice it to think of a very common inconvenience of living with a pet. Dogs of all sizes are certainly not scrupulous to rub their penis on the guests of the house, practice which is usually discouraged in public but not necessarily denied in the private domestic space. Even the sexual attentions of a great primate can, to the extent that the people involved boast a sufficient mutual acquaintance, be understood and find place in the relationship with a human subject, without such eventuality somehow arousing horror. Singer himself assists, during a visit to the Camp Leakey Orangutan Rehabilitation Center run by Birute Galdikas to the “assault” of an ape against a woman, in the group of visitors. It had been up to Galdikas, an expert ethologist, to reassure the woman about the emergence of the sexual desire of the monkey, claiming that there would have been nothing to fear about and that the primate would certainly not, despite its excitement, bring her any damage. The subjects involved, belonging to different species usually rigidly “separated”, have been led to overcome their irreducibility thanks to the intervention of a “family person” like Birute Galdikas, a scientist expert of apes’ behavior accustomed for years to live together with the orangutans. During the long period spent in company of them, Galdikas had learned to interact with this species also on the side of sexual desire.

The cases of the orangutan and the dog, to the extent that they are considered as companions of life (very unlikely in the case of the orangutans—but verified for Birute Galdikas—and, instead, absolutely normal in that of the dog), are comparable from the point of view of the involved subjects but not for the juridical systems. Regulating this area—it should now be clear—requires, therefore, a “multinatural” awareness to the legislator and, on the other hand, poses the problem of the reversibility of the gaze: until when the legal systems will be allowed to ignore the problem of animal responsibility? How long the animals, if they really want to be fully included in the social arena, taking on citizenship, as well as being recipient of ever-broader rights, will not be called to assume, on a prospective basis, duties and prescriptions? More specifically, how long the zoophiliac practices will be relegated out of the law, despite being increasingly widespread and claimed by animalists? In Germany, the case of Zeta Verein, the first association of zoophiles in the world, claims a proper ethical primacy of the way they relate with animals compared to the more traditional animalist approaches and, obviously, compared to the German legislation that prohibits these practices. Moreover, classical themes of jurisprudence linked to sexual violence are re-launched on the side of interspecies relations. When does a sexual relationship with an animal deserve being called violent or cruel? How to acknowledge the consent of the involved animal subjects in the judgments surrounding an alleged offense against any of the parts in questions? Paradoxical but somehow on the agenda. It’s clear that the scope of the clash invests at the roots the same basis of the civil coexistence.

6 Animalist Clash and the Social Sciences

On the other hand, however, the animalist front appears far from being pacified and homogeneous within it and, until today, has experienced difficulties in relating to anthropological theories. Alessandro Mancuso recalls this issue in his essay, in which he notes that the propensity towards an ethical universalism based on a scientist ideology seems difficult to combine with the aptitude of anthropology to acknowledge the solutions developed by other cultures to categorize the world. For animalists, in short, Nature with its troops of non-humans is stubbornly one and with a capital en, whereas anthropology rejects any pretended “great divide” between the cultural and natural universe.

But even the anthropological point of view—Mancuso claims—has undergone an evolution. It concerns the transition from an approach oriented to symbolism (animals as a symbolic projection of the humans) to approaches linked to the recognition of a status of social actors to animals. This is the fundamental point of the ontologic turn that we are going through nowadays. The same movement is the common denominator of all the essays contained in this volume and can be recognized in every area of the social sciences: from jurisprudence, to anthropology, to philosophy, to ethology and even to linguistics. As noted by Delahaye, if this last discipline has been hesitating on recognizing the status of language carriers to animals, the issue of personality is nowadays accepted: “I do not know whether this is language, because the definition is unsteady and struggles to find solid ground but I do know I am facing an individual capable of complex semiotic actions, and they are capable of it” [4]. Animals have something to say to us, despite our difficulties in correctly positioning their contribution to the interspecies conversation.

Here we are at the core of delicate task engaged by a refounded Zoosemiotics. This new disclipline arises as a theory of a new field of interdisciplinary studies on animality, conceived, not as a separate area from society, but rather as a component of the fluctuating internatural [6] collective [5] in which humans and non-humans coexist. This collective, in many ways already realized and, on the other hand, still capable of great social transformations, represents a further possibility, a viable option of emancipation from the shallows of scientist reductionism and from the equally problematic attempts of symbolic assimilation of the variegated multitudes living in it to the universe of the human.


  1. 1.
    Barthes, Roland. 1964. Essais critiques. Paris: Seuil.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Descola, Philippe. 2005. Par-delà nature et culture. Paris: Gallimard.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Eco, Umberto. 1990. I limiti dell’interpretazione. Milano: Bompiani.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Guillaume, Astrid. 2013. Question de définitions. Humanité versus Animalité? Sémiotique de l’animal. Revue trimestrielle de la Fondation Droit Animal, Ethique et Sciences 79: 22–24.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Latour, Bruno. 1991. Nuos n’avons jamais été modernes. Essai d’anthropologie symétrique. Paris: la Découverte.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Marrone, Gianfranco. 2011. Addio alla Natura. Torino: Einaudi.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Marrone, Gianfranco. 2017. Introduzione. In Zoosemiotica 2.0. Forme e politiche dell’animalità, ed. G. Marrone, 13–17. Palermo: Museo Pasqualino.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Marrone, Gianfranco (ed.). 2017. Zoosemiotica 2.0. Forme e politiche dell’animalità. Palermo: Edizioni Museo Pasqualino.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.). 1968. Zoosemiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Singer, Peter, 2001. Heavy petting. Prospect Magazine, April 62, Accessed 5 May 2018.
  11. 11.
    Šklovskij, Viktor. 1981. Teoria della prosa. Torino: Einaudi.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Viveiros De Castro, Eduardo. 2009. Métaphysiques cannibales. Paris: PUF.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PalermoPalermoItaly

Personalised recommendations