The Growing Field of Animal Law is Attracting Activists and Pragmatists Alike
By PETER MONAGHAN Portland, Or.
In the Pacific Northwest, many young people say they want to liberate animals from human subjection, so much so that defending activists who break into research laboratories to set loose animals is now a cottage industry.
Here at Lewis & Clark College School of Law, students of "animal law" are learning another way to change social practices that involve animals. They are just as passionate as animal-liberation advocates. And they may become more influential.
Animal law is the study of all laws relating to animals, whether they enable harsh treatment of animals or encourage kind treatment. "It's a lot like where environmental law was in the 1970s," says Laura Ireland Moore, founder and executive director of the National Center for Animal Law, based at Lewis & Clark.
Students in the field study animal-related local, state, and federal legislation and case law. Topics include animal cruelty, hunting, animal fighting, and performing animals; the history of animals' legal status; the use of animals in scientific research; free-speech and religious-practice limitations on animal sacrifices; and such federal statutes as the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Slaughter of Livestock Act.
Critics of the animal-law courses say they risk taking a political stance. Indeed, the conviction that humans should treat animals better motivates almost all the students who enroll in animal-law courses, says Kimberly E. McCoy, who has just graduated from the law school at Lewis & Clark. She is the outgoing editor in chief of Animal Law Review, which in 1993 became the country's first journal devoted to the subject.
After graduating from college, Ms. McCoy had no intention of attending law school. She had worked for the cause of protecting endangered species — whales, pandas, and rare tigers. During visits to developing countries, she had seen animals living in what she describes as deplorable conditions.
An article about "compassionate eating" persuaded her to become a vegan. She started hearing more about so-called animal-rights terrorism. Then one day, law school seemed like the right outlet for her passion. "There was so much fear mongering about people using tactics outside the law," Ms. McCoy says, "I decided I wanted to fight within the legal system."
'Respect Their Interests'
Like other areas of public-interest law, animal law is attracting many women, who outnumber men by 10 to one in the burgeoning field.
Interest is growing rapidly because animal welfare "is much more part of our consciousness," says Pamela Frasch, director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund's anti-cruelty division, who teaches a course at Lewis & Clark. "So it's natural that it would become a separate area of law in law schools."
Concern about animals has increased as farming has shifted from a "part of the family" to a "factory farm" model. At the same time, the public has become more aware of the harmful effects of intensive fishing on marine mammals and reptiles, such as the catching of dolphins in tuna-fishing nets. Advances in scientific knowledge of animals — and their consciousness — have played a role, too. "When we learn that animals have emotions, and feel pain, and are intelligent, and
have social structures, we have an obligation to respect their interests," says Ms. Moore.
But it is arguments like that that prompt blunt criticism from legal educators who are skeptical of the way advocates of animal "rights" are shaping the teaching of animal law. Yes, the human use of animals is an important component of the law, and has been since ancient times, says Richard A. Epstein, a professor law at the University of Chicago. But that does not mean, he says, that "preposterous" and "overinflated" claims about animal emotions and intelligence should guide it now.
"Very few people will take the side of saying, 'Yes, animal protections are appropriate,'" he says, "but 'No, animal rights are not.' That's a very uncomfortable position to be in, because you can always be painted as an ogre."
Reasoned discussion of animal law can include such topics as the lessening need for some kinds of animal testing, and yet fall well short of what he considers to be outlandish advocacy of purported animal rights. So, he adds, one can teach animal law without taking a position on such largely emotional topics. "Animal law is a neutral topic," he says. "What I get nervous about are courses that take sides, that are the equivalent of 'human rights for victims' or 'property law for developers.'"
To hear students here at Lewis & Clark, however, idealism is not the whole story. Many are pragmatists. Danielle Thompson became a vegan at the age of 17, nine years ago, after devouring a book from the 1950s about food production that she happened on in a thrift store. "It was out of concern for animals and the horrific suffering they go through every minute of the day," she says.
"Most of the suffering is due to our eating them, and their being in factory farms."
Ms. Thompson became involved with Vegan Outreach, a national organization that advocates sparing or easing animals' lives by eating no animal products, and the Animal Defense League, another national advocacy group, while studying political science and philosophy at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and then decided to study animal law at Lewis & Clark. "I wanted a career where I could have a reasonably good life," she says, "but also help animals."
In another expression of pragmatism, each year 40 to 60 Lewis & Clark law students work on Animal Law Review, enhancing their résumés even as they support a cause. The students edit and publish articles on standards of care at private wildlife sanctuaries and Native American tribal whaling rights, among other subjects.
Virtually all submissions advocate for animal welfare, but there are exceptions. "We take pride in being nonbiased, says Ms. McCoy, the editor. "We have published articles saying that animal experimentation is ethical and necessary."
In animal-law classes, debates involve questions about which human uses of animals are acceptable. Students generally deplore the use of animals in the testing of cosmetics and household products but are divided about their use in medical research. Attitudes toward food production often vary according to students' dietary practices.
The sparse enforcement of existing animal laws also prompts debate, students say. So do arguments about the adequacy of the laws. The Federal Humane Slaughter Act of 1958, for example, specifically exempts poultry, which composes 92 percent of animals killed for food in the United States. Is such a law just, or sufficient?
Impassioned debates aside, not all experts are sure the field can grow fast enough to provide meaningful work for all of its graduates.
Geordie Duckler, an animal-law attorney in Portland who often helps teach the courses at Lewis & Clark, believes that animal-law students frequently graduate with what he calls "the naïve, unreasonable, and problematic goal of working to 'protect the animals.'"
"There is only so much money that can be spent on promoting fashionable cruelty legislation," he says. "If the idea is to actually make a living, most new practitioners are going to have to swallow hard and get on the unpopular side of a huge number of legal questions on custody, neglect, conveyance, and injury." That, he says, might mean representing universities using animals for research, ranchers breeding horses, or even pet marketers accused of operating "puppy mills."
Animal-law instruction, he believes, should focus on laws as they are written and enforced, not so much on moral arguments.
Ms. Moore and others in the field do not agree. They claim that, far from breeding radicals, animal law signals that more and more Americans simply care about animals. "One in 31 people in the United States is a member of the Humane Society, and that speaks volumes," says Ms. McCoy. "Most people, even if they support animal research, eat meat, or wear fur, want to be assured that those animals were treated humanely while they were alive."
As in any kind of social-welfare law, an advocacy element is perhaps inevitable. "It's hard," she says, "to separate personal from professional with something like animal law."
Section: The Faculty
Volume 53, Issue 43, Page A6