Animal Rights and the Law

Animal protection issues are a frequent topic on Dorf on Law, with my post last week discussing the transition to veganism (Meat, Dairy, Psychology, Law, Economics) being only the most recent of many examples. As an academic who does not practice or produce scholarship in the area of animal law, however, my impact on the welfare of animals is limited to my own choices and whatever effect my blogging on the issue might have. I started to wonder: Who are the people who are having a seriously positive impact on the well-being of animals, the people who have dedicated all or part of their professional activities toward addressing these important issues? It turns out that I did not need to look far, because two of my colleagues at GW Law are doing very important work in this area. Professor Joan Schaffner is the director of the Animal Law Program at GW, and she and Professor Mary Cheh have created the Animal Welfare Project. (Professor Cheh also serves on the City Council for Washington, D.C., where she has sponsored important animal welfare legislation.) Their work should be supported and expanded.

The concept of "animal law," of course, can be very broad and need not take into account the welfare of animals at all. Indeed, in my 1L Property class (as in most property law courses in U.S. law schools), a surprisingly large number of the early cases had to do with hunting, wandering livestock, etc. The only issue in the cases was how to compensate owners when their livestock or prey had been stolen or killed. At one point, I asked the professor if there was any legal remedy for the loss of an animal beyond its value as meat or breeding stock. The professor said: "Well, there are some people who think that sentiment should be an issue in these cases; but we're not going to talk about that." You had to hear him wrap his mouth around the word "sentiment" to truly appreciate just how unwelcome my question was. One could thus easily imagine a course in animal law being nothing more than an advanced seminar in very traditional property law, addressing issues of how to put a market value on animals that have been stolen, ownership issues, etc., but continuing to treat the animals as lacking sentience or moral significance.

Happily, GW's program is on the leading edge of a modern wave of animal rights law. The program teaches students the current state of animal law as it can be used to protect animals and improve their welfare, and it attempts to change attitudes about the relationship between human and non-human animals. The program is designed to train "young lawyers who will be among the first generation of lawyers, judges, and legislators to address the widespread problems of cruelty and neglect." In addition to two seminars and the Animal Welfare Project, the program includes an animal rights clinic (the Animal Law Litigation Project) and a student chapter of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. I do not know how widespread such programs are in U.S. law schools, though I suspect that GW's might be sui generis or, at least, currently the most comprehensive in the country. (I'd be happy to learn that I am wrong about that. This is a game of one-upmanship that we should all welcome.) There are also top-notch legal scholars who work in the area of animal rights law, notably my former Rutgers-Newark colleague Professor Gary Francione.

Animal rights issues have recently made a splash in the news, with the important legislation that was recently passed in Spain being a prime example. Even so, we have a long, long way to go. For one example of just how crazy people can be about animal welfare, consider today's column by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT, in which he movingly describes the horrors of killing farm animals, admits that meat-eating will likely someday be generally seen as revolting, and then talks about how good the meat tastes and acknowledges that he continues to eat it (with a modicum of guilt). The teaser sentence in the print version of the paper is especially grotesque: "What animal has the best family values? (Hint: Boy, it's yummy.)" Make that a long, long, LONG way to go.

Update: I said in my last blog post that it's unnecessarily difficult to be a vegan in this country. A week later, I can report that it is a lot easier than it looks. Better laws and better labeling are still necessary, but the psychological transition is surprisingly short and ultimately rather simple.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan