Q&A: LEAP Student Fellow Maggie Wang Urges Collective Animal Personhood

Maggie Wang ’25 with trees and a wood fence in the background
Maggie Wang ’25 is a Law, Ethics & Animals Program Student Fellow.

Maggie Wang ’25 is a rising 3L at Yale Law School, a Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) Student Fellow, and a 2023-2024 Emerging Scholar Fellow with the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law & Policy. With the support of the Brooks Fellowship, Wang is pursuing research that uses scientific evidence on animal behavior and conceptual frameworks from labor, property, and nonprofit organization law to argue that animal collectives — for example, colonies of insects, flocks of birds, schools of fishes, and packs of mammals — should have legal recognition distinct from any recognition accorded to species or individual animals. Wang has presented this research at Anthropocene: A Legal Scholarship Symposium at George Washington University Law School in 2023 and the 26th Annual Conference on Law, Culture, and the Humanities in May 2024 and will present it at the upcoming Annual Meeting of the Law and Society Association in June.

LEAP Postgraduate Fellow Laurie Sellars spoke with Wang about her proposal for collective animal personhood. Their conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

What is collective animal personhood? In what ways does this theory of animal personhood differ from the current legal views of nonhuman animals? 

Collective animal personhood is my proposal for how human law can recognize non-human societies. I’ve written this paper against the backdrop of what, in my view, are the two existing views of non-human animals in the law. The first is the species-based view, which sees animals in terms of the species they belong to and tries to protect those species for biodiversity or environmental conservation purposes. For example, the Endangered Species Act tries to protect species that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finds to be threatened or endangered. The second view is what I call the individualist view. This view is common among animal rights theorists like Peter Singer and, more recently, Martha Nussbaum. The individualist view drives animal cruelty and welfare laws like the Animal Welfare Act, which are designed to protect individual animals from neglect or acts of cruelty. My intervention is to point out that these two views are opposite poles on a conceptual spectrum. I’m interested in what’s between these poles. For me, the most important thing is to recognize the groups that animals organize themselves into. 

I got the idea for this paper from reading about the criminal prosecution and punishment of animals in medieval Europe. I noticed that individual animals who committed cruel acts, like mauling or killing somebody, were tried for their crimes in secular courts and punished using “conventional” methods like hanging. But animals who committed crimes that were more collective in nature, requiring a large number of beings to carry out — a swarm of locusts eating crops, for example — were tried in the ecclesiastical courts and would be excommunicated or exorcised if found guilty. There were probably practical reasons for these different outcomes: if you have a bunch of locusts eating your crops, you might not be sure which individual locusts are involved, so you have to put them all on trial to be sure of punishing the guilty ones. But I also think this system recognized that collectives can get things done more effectively and efficiently than individuals acting on their own. There’s something uniquely disarming about collectivity that warranted prosecution in ecclesiastical courts. Yet, there’s no legal recognition of animal collectives today and no distinct legal treatment for those collectives. With collective personhood, I’m interested in giving some kind of legal status to animal collectives. We already have personhood for other collectives, like corporations, and I’m interested in extending that concept to non-human animals. 

Why, in your view, is granting legal personhood to animal collectives appropriate? What are some examples of animals for whom collective identity is particularly important?

I’m interested in grounding animal law in what we know about animals scientifically. So the second section of the paper is about views of animal collectives in ethology, which is the study of animal behavior. Thanks to the generosity of the Brooks Emerging Scholars Fellowship, I went to the North American Animal Law Conference in fall 2023, where Kristin Andrews of York University gave a talk about social behavior and norm enforcement among non-human animals. One example from her talk stuck with me: Mormon crickets form “marching bands” of millions of individuals traveling in a line. These marching bands occur when the crickets have exhausted their food sources in their original location, so the only remaining food for them is each other. When the crickets move, each individual is both chasing the one in front of them and fleeing the one behind them. If one of the line members stops moving, the insect person behind them will eat the one who’s stopped. It’s cannibalism as punishment. I thought this was amazing. What does collectivity do for these animals that it’s so important that they enforce and maintain it? 

In the paper, I have three examples of animal collectivity, and each one serves a different purpose. The first case study is of crows. Certain crow species breed, roost, and raise their young collectively, which shows us that collectives are greater than the sum of their parts. Failing to recognize collectivity, or to think of collectives as adding anything to the lives of their individual members, leads us to miss out on important aspects of animals’ worlds.

The second example is prairie dogs, who demonstrate that collectives are not only sites of productive, positive things. There are lots of negative aspects of human society — inequality, punishment, and discrimination — that exist in animal societies too. Prairie dogs have very well-defined hierarchies, and juveniles or prairie dog people at the bottom of the hierarchy are pushed to the edge of the colony, where they’re more vulnerable to predation. The colony inflicts harm on some of its members. It’s important to recognize this because the point of granting legal recognition to animal collectives is not just to better protect them but also to better understand them. Without this collective viewpoint, then there are harms that we don’t know about and aren’t giving attention to. 

The third example is eusocial wasps. The point of this example is to demonstrate that among eusocial animals — the animals whom biologists consider to display the “most advanced” type of social organization — the colony is more than the sum of its parts. The defining feature of eusociality is that the different members of the collective are specialized to do different tasks. There are reproductive individuals and non-reproductive individuals, and there are wasps who build the nest and who defend the nest, or who forage for food and feed the young. Only when these individuals come together can the colony survive and provide for itself. For eusocial animals, the essence of being is not just to exist on your own, but also to be part of something greater than yourself. That’s true of humans too, actually, even though we’re not eusocial.
What legal frameworks pertaining to human collectives do you see as instructive in thinking about granting collective animal personhood to other animals?

I focus on three types of human collectives — labor organizations and unions, housing collectives like homeowners’ associations (HOAs), and social clubs. The goal of these case studies is to show that there are lots of ways human laws protect human collective activity. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. explained the importance of unions very eloquently: “One of the eternal conflicts out of which life is made up is that between the effort of every man to get the most he can for his services, and that of society, disguised under the name of capital, to get his services for the least possible return. Combination on the one side is patent and powerful. Combination on the other is the necessary and desirable counterpart, if the battle is to be carried on in a fair and equal way.” That remains true of labor and capital today, and it’s also true of human relationships with non-human animals. I don’t mean to say that human relationships with animals are always antagonistic; the relationship between labor and capital is not necessarily always antagonistic either. But human collectives have legal protections that allow them to exist, organize, govern themselves, enter into contracts, own property, and enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of religion. These things enable human collectives to inflict harms on animals. 

There are also other collectives that I don’t discuss in the paper, like families, churches, and criminal conspiracies. Criminal conspiracies are an especially interesting case. They usually don’t have formal legal personhood like corporations do, and in fact, a hallmark of criminal conspiracies is that they operate outside the bounds of the law, but their collective nature can have legally significant effects, for example, when conspirators are put on trial. These examples show how important legally recognized collectivity is for human society. But as the section of the paper about crows, wasps, and prairie dogs shows, a lot of the same could be said about animals too.

How do you envision collective animal personhood in practical terms? 

Perhaps counterintuitively, collective animal personhood might be easier to establish than individual animal personhood. Because we already have collective frameworks for humans, it feels natural to extend these frameworks to animals. People who don’t buy the arguments for individual animal personhood might be more willing to accept that animals exist in collectives that should be legally protected in some way.

There are immediate practical applications of collective animal personhood, like collective standing. But actually, we don’t need collective animal personhood to begin recognizing collective harms. We could have, for example, an Endangered Species Act for animal collectives. Animals live in their own societies with their own norms, laws, relationships, power systems, and institutions. Recognizing the existence of those things will, I hope, change how we think about and relate to animals: I hope we will begin to see animals not just as subjects of our laws but also as the sources of their own laws.

My goal in this paper and in my work more broadly is to push the boundaries of our thinking about animals and to get us to question the organizational lines on which our legal system is built. What is a person? What are rights? Who are rightsholders? What does it mean to have a stake in the legal system, or not to have one? I want to push back on this notion that the primordial legal actors are individuals and that the law is centered around the rights, desires, needs, or decisions of individuals. I’m interested in asking about the collective interests that all of us — human and nonhuman — are part of.