Animals and the Law

pitty on a train

The American Bar Association has devoted its latest issue of GPSOLO Magazine to the blooming field of animal law.  In ten articles, lawyers describe how they are adapting legal concepts such as guardianship and ownership, to reflect Americans’ evolving regard for animals.


All but one focus on animal companions, whom Americans increasingly regard as family members, according to a recent AP poll.   The trend brings more pet owners into contact with the law through custody disputes (recall Michael Vick’s dogs) and trusts (recall the $12 million left to billionaire Leona Helmsley’s Maltese), and as targets of an ever-diversifying market for products and services like pet insurance.

Some readers may be frustrated by the short shrift this collection gives to laws affecting farm and lab animals.  Or, they may interpret the emphasis on pets as indication that those animals perch at the frontier of a shifting status quo in animals’ legal status.

A few highlights from the issue:

Dana M. Campbell surveys legal efforts to pass and defeat “breed specific legislation” (BSL) (such as Cincinnati’s ban on owning, selling or harboring pit bulls, whose penalties were doubled in March).  She examines the origins and results of such efforts, and the effectiveness of various arguments in courts of law.

Christine Garcia outlines her experiences with civil (e.g. divorce) and criminal (e.g. dog fighting, domestic violence) cases that regard the custody of companion animals.

Katherine Hessler and Tanith Balaban offer the collection’s single foray out of pet law: a discussion of the legal issues that have arisen from America’s recent and dramatic industrialization of animal farming.  The authors examine how legislation such as the Clean Water Act, the Animal Health Protection Act, and state constitutional protections, impact farms and animals.  And they highlight key loopholes in animal welfare laws; The Humane Slaughter Act and The Twenty-Eight Hour Law, for example, aim to make slaughter and transport more humane, yet  birds–who comprise 95% of America’s farmed land animals–are exempted from the protections of both.

Those who follow changes in the legal statuses of animals, will appreciate this collection of updates by sharp minds keen to make sense of  animal law and American sensibilities, in light of each other.

For for those interested in staying up to date, these think tanks and research centers may be of use (and they are all on my blog roll):

Animal Legal and Historical Web Center; Michigan State University College of Law

Center for Animal Law Studies; Lewis & Clark University Law School

Center for Animals and Public Policy (disclaimer: this center is my alma mater); Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

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4 thoughts on “Animals and the Law

  1. Thank you for posting this. It’s looks like a lot of good items to read. Unfortunately, I don’t know if there is really a significant change occurring in the way animals are being treated by law and society or it’s just food and farming industries are looking for ways to avoid the most inconvenient outcomes of growing discontent with their practices and attempting to channel the discussion into the areas that affect them the least. But I haven’t read the pieces you’ve mentioned, so I am just speculating.

    • SH,

      Thanks for your comment. My posting doesn’t give much of an overview to the articles, so I suggest that you read a few of them! Agricultural animals/law is not the focus; the authors are solo and small-firm attorneys who have devoted their practices either partly or entirely to animal law cases, which primarily involve companion animals. In these cases it has become increasingly clear that neither “person” nor “property” are very effective at characterizing the role of pets in families.

      Because laws must be interpreted before they are enforced, a growing handful of cities–plus Rhode Island–have changed the wording of their laws to refer to “pet guardians” rather than “pet owners” and in some cases “companions” rather than “pets.” While these changes may seem small, they offer a significantly different set of possible interpretations. Here is a link to a CNN Law article which describes this shift and mentions a historic case in which a companion animal’s best interest was used to determine a custody ruling, rather than the guardians’ property rights.

      Laws do constantly evolve–alongside the social values, political forces, and scientific knowledge that they reflect–so to my mind it’s only natural that animal laws are evolving.

  2. You couldn’t treat your pet the way frarm animals are treated – it would be against the law. See my book ON THE MENU:ANIMAL WELFARE (website ame name!) – which tells, for the most part, a horror story, NOT imagined, but something that is happening every moment of every day. It draws attention to the animals on factory farms that never see natural light; or the seasons change; or feel the earth beneath their feet. Incarcerated in vast barns their lives are automated, unnatural, controlled as they are treated as nothing more than any other farm product and become grotesque parodies of their natural selves.

    This book describes the whole production process – from before conception to the way the animals we use for food are presented on the supermarket shelves: the chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese; the laying hens, quail and the pheasants reared for sport; the pigs and lambs; the dairy cattle, beef cattle and veal calves; and also the rabbits as well as the fish and shellfish. END

    Published by Pen Press and available from Amazon at £8.99; from public libraries in the UK and Ireland; and also Ingrams (in the USA).

    With best wishes,

    Sue Cross

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