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Animal Protection Through the Law: Learn About Animal Law

Animals not only share our world but also inspire awe and joy in us. Whether it’s the graceful flight of a bird, the playful antics of a companion dog, or the majestic presence of an elephant, animals contribute to and support the rich tapestry of life on earth. However, alongside coexistence with them, humans also engage in widespread exploitation of animals. For example, humans use animals for entertainment in zoos and circuses, exploit them for medical research, breed, farm and raise animals for food, and hunt them for sport. Left unchecked, history demonstrates that humans have exploited some species of animals to extinction, and others are either gravely threatened or on the brink as well. 

Animals are living, sentient beings, who have a subjective experience of the world and are capable of experiencing emotions, including pain and suffering. Therefore, using animals for human purposes gives rise to moral and ethical concerns, including questions such as: what legal protections do we owe animals and how do we safeguard their interests?

Animal Protection

The Role of Law in Animal Protection 

The legal system has always had an important role to play in human society. Laws establish a framework for what constitutes acceptable behavior and what society has collectively deemed to be intolerable or punishable. Laws provide guidance on how to resolve disputes, and the legal system serves as a bulwark against wanton infringement of individual rights by the state. By providing a structured system of rules and regulations, the law contributes to social cohesion, justice, and the protection of fundamental values. 

As much as the law has a role to play in safeguarding human rights and regulating human relationships, it can also be a tool for animal protection. The history of animal cruelty laws in the United States dates back to the early 19th century, when the first anti-cruelty legislation was enacted in the state of New York in 1828. Inspired by the advocacy of Henry Bergh, the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), this milestone marked the beginning of a broader movement that eventually led to the development of comprehensive animal welfare laws across the country that aimed to protect animals from unnecessary suffering and abuse.

Today, all 50 states in the United States and most countries around the world have enacted some form of animal protection legislation. From prohibiting the infliction of unnecessary pain and suffering on animals to criminalizing specific acts of cruelty and neglect, animal cruelty laws attempt to recognize and safeguard the interests of animals through the legal system, and allow a method of enforcement when these interests are violated. 

What Laws Impact the Lives of Animals?

While at first blush, it might appear that the role of law with respect to animals is restricted to animal cruelty legislation, this is far from true. While animal welfare laws have a key role to play in protecting animals from cruelty and neglect, laws that affect, regulate or address animals in human society are ubiquitous at the international, federal, state and local levels. Moreover, while there are laws beyond animal cruelty laws that provide legal protections for animals, they often fail to be expansive enough and this failure results in pain and suffering to billions of animals on an annual basis. Examples of some of these U.S. laws include: 

  • Laws regulating the use of animals in commercial activities: In the United States, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is a federal law that regulates the treatment and handling of animals in research, exhibition, transport, and certain commercial endeavors. Enacted in 1966 and amended several times since, the AWA sets standards for humane care, housing, and transportation of certain animals, with the goal of ensuring their well-being and preventing unnecessary suffering. Yet the AWA leaves some of the most exploited animals unprotected, carving them out of legal protection either due to the type of animal or intended use. For example, farmed animals do not enjoy AWA protections. Thus, even where we have animal protection laws, there is significant room for improvement to advance legal protections.
  • Laws addressing the treatment of farmed animals: Certain laws are enacted to minimize the suffering experienced by animals raised for food. There is no U.S. federal law that governs the treatment of farmed animals during the time they are being raised for food. There are, however, laws that relate to the slaughter of animals. Enacted in 1958, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act is a U.S. federal law that mandates that livestock be rendered unconscious before the slaughtering process. As with the AWA, however, the law fails to provide protections for all animals. Poultry and fish, for example, do not fall within its protections.
  • Laws aiming to protect wildlife: The goal of some pieces of legislation is to protect wild animals and their environments, especially when these animals are gravely threatened by human activities. For example, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a U.S. federal law designed to protect and recover endangered and threatened species and their habitats. Enacted in 1973, it grants regulatory powers to government agencies to assess and mitigate actions that may harm these species, aiming to prevent their extinction and promote biodiversity conservation. However, the ESA has been criticized for prioritizing the interests of species over those of individual animals. Furthermore, the ESA is designed to protect only threatened and endangered species of wild animals. 

Animal Law as Field of Legal Inquiry 

Animal law is a specialized legal field dedicated to addressing animal protection through the legal system. Animal law implicates a diverse range of issues, including preventing animal cruelty, protection of wild animals, regulation of animal testing, the ethical treatment of animals in various industries, and more. This area of law seeks to establish and enforce legal frameworks that govern the treatment and rights of animals, recognizing them as sentient beings deserving of consideration and protection. Animal law addresses concerns such as the conditions in which animals are raised, their use for food, fiber, research and entertainment, the protection of species, as well as individual animals, and the conservation of their natural habitats. The development of animal law reflects growing societal demand for the protection and ethical treatment of animals. 

Lawyers and advocates who specialize in animal law can advance animal protection in a number of ways. Careers in animal law include:

  • Litigating in court to protect animal interests;
  • Working in a federal or state agency responsible for implementing animal protection legislation;
  • Lobbying on behalf of state or national animal protection entity, including wildlife, equine, aquatic, companion, and farmed animal advocacy organizations;
  • Teaching animal law; 
  • Working in an animal protection or other nonprofit organization that advances the rights and interests of animals;
  • Advising on animal law policy at the federal, state, or local levels

……and many more. 

Advance Animal Protection by Earning a Degree in Animal Law 

Candidates can specialize in animal law to advance the interests of animals through the law. The Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School features the world’s first Animal Law LLM program for lawyers and the first of its kind Animal Law MSL program in the U.S. for non-lawyers. Both programs are designed to allow advocates to focus on animal law in practice, academia, research, or public policy. Both degree programs are offered in-person in Portland, Oregon, and fully online, giving students the flexibility to maintain their family, professional, and other life commitments while undergoing this specialized training. The program includes courses on a diverse array of animal law topics, including Animal Law Fundamentals, Industrial Animal Agriculture Law, Global Wild Animal Law, Crimes Against Animals and many others. 

Lewis & Clark’s online Animal Law LLM and online MSL program are flexible programs that fit students’  schedules with courses taught by renowned animal law scholars and practitioners from around the world, letting candidates  explore the challenges and opportunities available to advocates dedicated to advancing the interests of animals. 

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