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A Brief Talk on Animal Law

The following is a copy of a short presentation that I will be giving at our July potluck and meet up with Direct Action Everywhere.


Hi, I’m Rachel. I’m a graduate of St. John’s University School of Law, and I’m an admitted attorney in the state of New York. I became admitted this previous September, and since law school ended, I have been working in and out of the legal field. I also have a blog called The Paw Report, in which I discuss animal law and animal rights. For the past 3 years, I have been a member of the NYC Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee. On the committee we research and write reports in support of or in opposition to proposed legislation. We also hold free, public events. For example, last year I organized an event in which author David Kirby of Death at Sea World came and spoke about his book and I along with my co-moderator, my boyfriend Spencer, discussed marine mammal protection law.

When people ask me what kind of law I want to practice, I always answer with, “Animal law.” Truthfully, I don’t have much interest in practicing law at all – I prefer to write about these issues and simply make enough money to be able to do my activism with Direct Action Everywhere. Anyway, when I answer with “Animal law,” almost everyone asks, “What is that?”

Animal law is basically how it sounds – it’s law that concerns animals in some way. This means that animal law is a very wide area that includes criminal law, environmental, landlord/tenant, property, contracts, personal injury, entertainment, research and agriculture/food. Of course, not every lawyer will do all those things – they can pick an area and specialize in that. Typically animal lawyers work for nonprofits, or organizations like the Animal Legal Defense Fund, or have their own private practice.

I would say that people generally feel that the law protects animals. But I don’t think this is true. Maybe in the case of our companion animals like dogs and cats, then we can say that the laws in place do a decent job of protecting them. But for the vast majority of animals, especially farmed animals, I think that the law fails them.

We know that every state has its own anti-cruelty statute that supposedly protects animals from cruelty. But the majority of these laws specifically exempt farmed animals or certain agricultural practices. And the history of anti-cruelty laws dating back to the 17th century tell us that these laws were actually put in place not to protect the animal, but the property interests of the human. Animals were only protected because they were property. This remains to be true today, with some exceptions which I’ll discuss toward the end.  In the early 19th century, cruelty against animals was outlawed in New York, but the reasoning was because people believed that if people hurt animals then they would hurt people. So again, the interests of the animal were not really taken into account. In 1866, Henry Bergh (founder of the ASPCA) was able to influence the New York legislature to change the anti-cruelty law to include any living creature, not just those with commercial value.

But even with Bergh’s influence on anti-cruelty laws, they remained weak.  And currently, there’s another problem — ag-gag legislation, which punishes those who expose abuses at farms. So it’s obvious that at the state level, the animals who need the most protection are not getting it.

Unfortunately, animals cannot look at federal law for help, either. We have very weak federal laws protecting animals, and the main piece of legislation is the Animal Welfare Act, or the AWA. The AWA has been amended many times since it’s inception, broadening its scope of who it protects. Even so, the Act only protects those that it has defined as an “animal” and the vast majority of animals used in agriculture and research are actually exempted. Moreover, the Secretary of Agriculture gives great deference to researchers and basically they can do whatever they want in the name of scientific research. Last year the NY Times exposed egregious abuses of farmed animals at a taxpayer-funded USDA agricultural research center. Federal legislation called the AWARE Act has been proposed to help give these animals a little protection so that the most heinous of these abuses cannot occur.

While the law concerning animals is definitely changing, and most notably in regards to the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, generally animals remain unprotected. And I think a lot of that has to do with the legal status of animals, which is of property. So I believe it’s key to change that. The good news is that we have seen animals like dogs become more than just “property” in the eyes of the law, and this has been especially true in custody battle disputes. Even though it is a small shift, it is huge for animal rights. We have to remember that the law evolves as culture does. And this is why I’m an activist. I believe that by participating in groups like DxE, we will shift the public’s attitude toward animals and then ultimately the law.

IMAGE: A baby elephant and their mother hang out together near a body of water. Flickr creative commons

IMAGE: A baby elephant and their mother hang out together near a body of water.
Flickr creative commons

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About The Paw Report

I graduated from St. John's University School of Law in 2012, and am admitted to practice law in New York State. I was a member of the New York City Bar Association's Animal Law Committee for three years. I was born and raised in Rhode Island, but moved to New Mexico when I was 18. After dabbling in film for two years, I graduated from the University of New Mexico with a degree in Anthropology. I've been living in New York City since 2008, and currently reside in Brooklyn with my boyfriend and our two cats. I am a former organizer with Direct Action Everywhere - New York City.

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