Animals and the Law

Posted on November 1, 2010

By: Cailen LaBarge, 3L, Suffolk Law School Student Animal Legal Defense Fund member

Originally published in Dicta, the official student newspaper of the Suffolk Law School Community, in September 2010.

At a school-sponsored event last spring, a professor’s spouse asked me about the area of law in which I planned to work after graduation. When I said, “I’m going to practice animal law,” the spouse replied, without hesitation, “well, that’s a stupid and narrow field.” I smiled and changed the subject, but the encounter stayed with me as a vivid example of the mainstream’s vast misconception of animal law and its place in out society.

Whether something is stupid or not is an opinion. The fact remains, however, that animal law is anything but narrow. Our legal treatment of other species significantly impacts our lives. From our daily interactions with animals – our food, the products we use that have been tested on animals, the leather and fur products we wear, the animals used in entertainment and recreation, and the “ownership” of companion animals – to the more profound influence animal use has on us – the advances in medicine and technology gained from the horrific practices of biomedical testing and vivisection, as well as the training our health professionals receive by practicing techniques and procedures on non-human subjects – we all consistently engage in animal-related activities that have been deemed legal. Each of these activities is supported by (and participation in these activities thereby supports) one or more industries created solely around the use of non-human animals for human benefit.

As animal welfare is a newer arena within the larger American legal structure, it follows that it must intersect with all other areas of the law. This is because the existing state and federal laws dealing with animal protection are weak, under-enforced, unregulated, or riddled with loopholes. For example, there is no current federal legislation protecting farm animals against egregious cruelty, yet animal agriculture operations can face millions of dollars in damages for violating federal environmental statutes. Alternatively, prosecution under state anti-cruelty statutes often results in fines of no more than a few hundred dollars, making it much more profitable for violators to continue their inhumane practices and pay the fines than to change their production methods such that animals are treated humanely. Therefore, to be successful as a legal advocate for animals, you are forced to be creative.

For example, some animal welfare organizations bring citizen suits against the “person in charge” of concentrated animal feeding operations (factory farms) for Clean Water Act violations stemming from the ammonia emissions that result from the disgusting and cruel conditions in which the animals are forced to live. This and similar strategies are also employed by many environmental protection organizations because of the fact that animal agriculture is, according to the EPA, the biggest contributor to both groundwater pollution and certain greenhouse gas emissions. I know of other cases in which welfare groups have initiated consumer protection actions against certain producers for making false labeling and advertising claims that their products come from animals that are “humanely raised,” when this claim is not based in fact.

My own experience working on animal protection litigation includes issues related to federal procedure and jurisdiction, administrative law, the supremacy clause, standing, germaneness, equal protection, the establishment clause, and commerce clause issues arising out of the interstate transportation of animals and animal products. In this regard, I doubt my experiences are much different than those of a clerk at a private firm with multiple practice areas. My point is that, because we haven’t yet been given a full set of tools by the legislature, we must fashion our own. So, to my fellow students who are or may be interested in an exciting, varied, and overall satisfying area of the law, I invite you to consider animal welfare, for there are safer, more compassionate, and economically viable ways to interact with those who must share this planet with us.