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Animal Law: Gaining Ground

Kathy Hessler

Animal Law: Gaining Ground
Brittany Crossman via iStock

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Though the practice area of animal law is becoming more common, many people are still unfamiliar with what it is and what a positive choice it can be for a career. There are likely as many definitions of animal law as there are practitioners and professors. At its core, animal law means protecting the interests of animals. This is easier said than done for two reasons. First, the legal system is human-centric, and therefore, animals are not seen as intrinsically valuable but are generally deemed valuable only in relation to human preferences and uses. Second, we cannot easily understand or communicate with animals to determine what choices they would make if they had options. And yet it is vital to consider questions of animal protection because there are crucial benefits to people and the environment when we do.

I have been directing the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School for 14 years and practicing and teaching animal law considerably longer. This work is varied, challenging, and necessary. It addresses fundamental and arcane issues and offers insight into the operation of the law itself and its intersection with social, scientific, economic, and other disciplines. It is never boring!

Why Is Animal Law Important?

Animal law was initially derided as niche and unnecessary, but that view is quickly changing. Increasingly, people acknowledge our relationship to and with animals and nature in expanded ways, recognizing and enforcing their value independently and in connection to us and the health and well-being of the planet and its ecosystems. As a result, we are seeing increased attention to our duties of protection. Additionally, people have come to recognize that if we are going to capture or breed and use animals for our own purposes, we have duties to mitigate the harms we visit upon them. These realizations often come at a significant cost after ignoring stark warnings.

When we ignore our interconnections with animals, the consequences of our mistreatment of them can be far-reaching. We know that people who abuse animals are more likely to abuse humans and have learned that ignoring or minimizing the abuse of animals may create missed opportunities to protect people. We know that mistreatment of wild and captive animals has led to diseases like AIDS, Ebola, Bovine Tuberculosis, Bird Flu, Swine Flu, MERS, SARS, Zika, West Nile Virus, Lyme disease, and of course, the current COVID coronavirus. Mistreatment of the planet and its (nonhuman) animal inhabitants is causing untold suffering for people, animals, businesses, governments, and our built and natural ecosystems.

What Is the Role of an Animal Lawyer?

Working in animal law requires thinking very broadly about a lawyer's responsibilities when a client’s interests cannot be easily communicated, much like how attorneys for young children operate. Very few attorneys represent animals directly; we represent people and organizations seeking to protect animals. We ascertain, interpret, and manage the interests of the animals through a dual agency relationship—first with the human or organizational client and then through the representation of the lawyer. Given these realities, animal attorneys have additional responsibilities to be cognizant of in this complicated relationship and navigate carefully through a legal system not well-designed to address questions of animal protection (and frankly still struggling with areas of human protection).

What Do Animal Lawyers Do?

In the legal field, and animal law, in particular, we need new thinking to address old problems, including access to justice, protection for the vulnerable, and support for the rule of law—especially equal protection and due process. We need a blend of creative thinking and new approaches, along with the use of traditional ones to address new challenges and opportunities. We need dedicated, compassionate, intelligent legal advocates, advisors, and decision-makers. Animal law requires these skills and creates outlets for this critical work in the United States and abroad.

The legal view of animals is evolving rapidly. Though animals are deemed property the world over, their legal status and the role their interests play in legal decision-making are also evolving. Oregon has recognized the sentience of some categories of animals. Alaska, Illinois, California, and New York have laws that address animals (and their needs) separately from property distribution in divorces. Eight states have banned cosmetic testing on animals. Some states have banned certain cruel agriculture practices, such as intensive confinement and products like foie gras that result from harmful treatment. Other states have banned the abusive treatment of circus animals or the use of wild animals in circuses entirely. The list of recent legal changes is much more extensive than this sampling and also includes things many people might not even know are problems, such as a ban on tattooing and piercing animals, and things people likely think were already addressed, like requirements for meeting the basic medical, housing, and food and water needs of companion animals.

Internationally, legal questions addressing the protection of animals have been increasing significantly. Spain has a new law recognizing that certain animals are sentient and should not be treated as objects. The UK’s declaration on animal sentience recently included many aquatic animals. Ecuador and other countries recognize the rights of nature in their constitutions. Tribal and treaty rights are being taken more seriously, allowing people to decide for themselves to protect rivers, forests, and the animals within them.

However, we still need to do a lot more work to address our use and treatment of animals. New uses, abuses, and alternatives also need to be addressed. As alternative (non-animal-based) food options are increasing, so is the need to address government regulation and labeling of these options. The regulation of aquaculture has not kept pace with its growth. We continue to find new species and need to consider how to protect them and their habitats as we face the challenges of failing other species in this regard. The list of animal legal issues grows by the day.

Scope of Animal Lawyering

When thinking about whether to enter the animal law field, law students and young attorneys need to keep in mind several considerations:

  • The preferred style of lawyering—litigation, legislative, policy, and administrative work.
  • The branch of government or private sector pathways—judicial positions as clerks, magistrates, and judges; policy advisors and staff in administrative agencies; private sector work for firms, corporations, and special interest groups ranging from tort litigation to contract law, regardless of whether domestic or international.
  • The context and intersectional opportunities—working with scientists, economists, health experts, and others, which can build on existing interests and unique expertise to help applicants stand out and contribute meaningfully.
  • The entity structure—starting or joining practices, nonprofit organizations, companies, trade groups, and coalitions.
  • The goals of the work—addressing fundamental aspects of the law, the application and enforcement of the law, or the development and expansion of the law.

How to Join the Field

Some of the tips to enter the field are similar to other types of law.

  • Reach out and ask someone to chat about their work.
  • Shadow someone (even virtually) in the field.
  • Volunteer with people engaged in the field.
  • Write a law review article or article for a bar association.
  • Attend CLE sessions, conferences, and symposia.
  • Create a volunteer project. Coordinate veterinary services for the animals of houseless people; work with fire stations to have respirators on hand for animals; propose consideration of animals by Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA); comment on administrative actions; draft legislation; provide research and resources for animal bar committees, professors, authors, and attorneys.

The field of animal law is varied, exciting, and growing. If you are considering this work, think broadly about what you might be interested in and consider where there is an unmet need. Reach out to those already doing this work, and welcome!