In Winning Rights for Animals, Approaches Differ

For animals, the current outlook may appear bleak: animals undergo abhorrent levels of suffering, especially on the farm and in laboratories, and help has not come from our legal system.  Laws that grant animals greater protections must overcome disinterested legislatures and the powerful and wealthy animal agriculture and pharmaceutical lobbies.  As a result, animals are subject to almost no protections.

Take animal agriculture, for instance.  Humanity’s interaction with animals takes place almost entirely on the farm—10 billion animals are raised for food yearly in the United States alone—so laws regarding how we treat these animals have crucial ethical and environmental implications (animal agriculture is to blame for between 18% and 35% of climate change).  And yet, as animal law scholar David Wolfson remarks, there is no semblance of a legal system in place governing how farm animals are to be treated.  The Animal Welfare Act, the major federal law designating the proper treatment of animals, exempts farm animals from its provisions.  The Department of Agriculture has no statutory authority to determine how animals are raised on the farm; there exist no laws regarding how animals are to be treated until they are transported to slaughter.  Even with regard to slaughter, The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act exempts chickens, which constitute 96% of the animals slaughtered for food.  State criminal animal cruelty statutes promulgate vague rules that are almost never enforced to protect farm animals.

Wolfson, partner at the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCoy and professor of animal law at New York University Law School, spoke of the woefully inadequate legal protections for animals at Harvard Law School’s Animal Law Week, which ran from February 15th to 19th.   The week saw six talks, each featuring advocates devoted to reducing animal suffering.  The desired means by which to reduce that suffering varied.  

Kristen Stilt, HLS professor and director of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program, emphasized the importance of linking animal rights to other social movements.  An Egyptian animal rights campaign that drew similarities between animal rights and women’s, children’s, and minority rights yielded a stunning provision in Egypt’s new 2014 Constitution requiring the humane treatment of animals: “The State shall protect and develop the green space in the urban areas; preserve plant, animal and fish resources and protect those under the threat of extinction or danger; guarantee humane treatment of animals.”

Stilt further stressed the importance of knowing one’s audience.  For Egypt, that meant appealing to the country’s deeply religious population.  To do so, animal advocates linked the kind treatment of animals to religious text—provisions from the Quran and Hadith that teach that animals are to be valued and cared for.  

Law professor Randall Abate singled out environmentalism in particular for the animal rights movement to work alongside and learn from.  The plight of animals and that of nature are linked, he argued, both because animal agriculture is in large part to blame for climate change and because both movements entail humanity’s role as stewards of the earth and protectors of the vulnerable.  Environmental concerns appeal to some who would not typically care about animal suffering—invoking these concerns thus may bring new people into the movement.  

Abate also cited an alternative method to advance the rights of animals: tapping into international trade law.  World Trade Organization rules allow countries to file objections to trade on environmental, health, and public morality grounds.  Under these provisions, a country can ban importing goods produced with the cruel treatment of animals if those goods or the production thereof hurt the environment, endanger health, or offend the public’s conceptions of morality.  Thus unlike United States law, international trade law represents an alternative legal system under which animal interests are taken into account.  

Another reaction to the failure of the legislature to protect animals is for citizens to take matters into their own hands.  Nancy Perry and Kelly Murray, of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, spoke to HLS about the ballot initiative process, whereby voters can bypass the legislative process by voting directly on potential laws.  Ballot measures have successfully protected animals in many areas, banning practices such as wolf hunting, horse slaughter, the trapping of fur animals, greyhound racing, gestation crates for breeding sows, veal crates, and battery cages for egg-laying hens.  

Ballot initiatives have succeeded because, while the government has been slow to respond, an overwhelming majority of the public supports bettering the lives of animals.  These initiatives are manifestations of this public sentiment unbounded by powerful interest groups.  Moreover, said Perry and Murray, merely the threat of such a measure passing has incentivized companies to adapt, citing examples such as McDonald’s shifting to using only cage-free eggs.  

To Scott Heiser of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the chief issue with animal cruelty laws is a lack of enforcement.  A former elected District Attorney, Heiser now works to aid law enforcement in prosecuting animal abuse by drafting search warrants, doing legal research, locating expert witnesses, assisting on appeals, and drafting legislation.  Heiser was joined in a talk at Animal Law Week by Nicoletta Caferri, head of the new Animal Cruelty Prosecutions Unit at the Queens County District Attorney, which is tasked with “pursing allegations of animal cruelty, abuse and neglect.”  Caferri and Heiser have worked together to improve the enforcement of existing legal protections for animals.  

Wolfson, while recognizing the advances in animal rights from the ballot initiative process and enhanced enforcement of animal cruelty laws, noted that still much of the worst treatment of food and laboratory animals persists.  Thus Wolfson, mindful of the political barriers surrounding the enactment of pro-animal legislation, advocated for altering the market for animal products and their alternatives.  Recognizing the rise of compassionate consumerism, Wolfson supports informing the public of the cruel practices behind animal products so as to reduce demand for them.  On the supply side, he advocated for increasing the available alternatives to animal products, from meat substitutes to faux fur.  As a law firm partner, he has worked with venture capital firms investing in novel and humane alternatives to animal products.  

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) combines many of the above approaches.  At the core of its multi-pronged attack that includes legal, educational, and investigative fronts, PETA promotes its overriding worldview that humans should not use animals for their own pleasure.  In outlining this stance at Animal Law Week, PETA president Ingrid Newkirk invoked familiar themes of animal advocacy, linking animal rights to other social movements.  The abuse of animals, she argued, is justified through the same faulty logic that all social movements seek to dispose of: the notion that we are different, and that our differences justify the worse treatment of others.  To further emphasize that human and animal causes are linked, Newkirk noted the environmental concerns and workers’ rights issues associated with the production of animal products.

Winning rights for animals remains a daunting task, given animal suffering’s unparalleled scale and the numerous political roadblocks.  Still, animal advocates have many tools at their disposal, whether going through the legislature or around it, whether enforcing existing laws or lobbying for new ones, whether working through domestic or international law, and whether using legal means or extralegal ones—perhaps by altering consumer demand for animal products.  In championing these and other strategies, the speakers of Animal Law Week signified an uncertain, yet exciting, future for animal law.  

Animal Law Week was hosted by Harvard’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program, and the nation-wide Animal Legal Defense Fund.  

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