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Are animals citizens? Queen's prof nets $100K prize for digging into that question

It's not a question that comes up every day at the dog park, but philosopher Will Kymlicka has been thinking long and hard about the obligations modern democracies have to domesticated animals. He's now received one of Canadian academia's highest honours.

Will Kymlicka has just won one of Canada's highest academic honours

Coco the pug enjoys an ice cream for dogs in this file photo from 2013. Will Kymlicka's work explores whether domesticated pets like Coco have citizenship rights — and if so, what those rights entail. (Gero Breloer/The Associated Press)

Do animals have citizenship rights?

It's not a question that comes up every day at the dog park or the vet's office, but philosopher Will Kymlicka has been thinking long and hard about it.

Kymlicka's work on the rights of animals is just one of the reasons the Queen's University professor was recently awarded the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Gold Medal.

It's the council's highest research honour, and one that comes with a $100,000 prize.

Pets and democracy

As the university's Canada Research Chair in Political Philosophy, Kymlicka is a frequent adviser to government and non-government agencies, as well as one of the country's top thinkers on topics such as multiculturalism, justice and democracy.

Over the past decade, he's also been exploring ways of thinking about domesticated animals within the context of democracy, and what our obligations toward them might include.

After all, there are dozens of laws governing almost all aspects of a pet dog or cat's life — where they can roam, what they can eat, and how they die.

And for obvious reasons, they have no say in those laws.

"The idea is that animals that we deal with most directly are domesticated animals, which is to say, animals that we have brought into our society through this long historical process," Kymlicka told CBC Radio's All In A Day Wednesday.

"And so the idea is that having done this — having brought animals out of the wild and brought them into our society — we need to recognize that they are now, in fact, members of a shared society."

Health care for pets?

If animals are indeed full members of Canadian society, Kymlicka believes that opens up questions about what rights we owe them — including whether they should have access to health care like any other citizen.

We only allow animals when it's convenient for us. But in our view, it's their society as well.- Will Kymlicka

"Most Canadians think that that is a kind of right of citizenship. If you're a member of Canadian society, you should have publicly funded health care," Kymlicka said.

"So I think that's true about domesticated animals. I think there should be a scheme of public health care for domesticated animals. No animal should die because they didn't have the resources for health care."

There are also implications, he added, as to how we think about the rights of animals to public space.

"Animals are often very limited in where they can go. We have all sorts of laws that prohibit dogs or cats entering restaurants, when they can be on- or off-leash, or so on," Kymlicka said.

"We only allow animals when it's convenient for us. But in our view, it's their society as well." 

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