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Book Review: “An Introduction to Animals and the Law”

By Nick Laccetti — March 14, 2011

One of the main avenues that we, as animal activists, use to create change is legislation – but we are bound to be ineffective without a working knowledge of the laws that currently govern animals in our society. The task of attaining this knowledge is made even more difficult by the fact that animal law is so frequently contradictory, arbitrary and unenthusiastically enforced. Joan E. Schaffner’s recent book, An Introduction to Animals and the Law, is an attempt to cut through these issues to provide a readable introduction to animal law in the United States and abroad. Without stopping there, however, Schaffner also provides a critique of the failures of the law to protect the interests of animals, and a vision of a truly substantial animal law that would actually respect the rights and sentience of non-humans.

An Introduction to Animals and the Law by Joan E. Schaffner

The entire notion of animal law is somewhat odd, considering the nature of most arguments against granting animals moral consideration in the first place. The usual argument against improving the legal status of animals says that, since non-human animals cannot respect human moral laws and boundaries, they are not able to be subjects of moral consideration within such laws. Strange, then, that humans have actually been perfectly willing to enfold animals within our legal framework, even though they have frequently done so ineptly and ineffectively.

The reason for this odd contradiction is laid out in Schaffner’s first chapter, “Animals and the Law: The Basics,” which should be required reading for any activist who needs a primer on the legal status of animals and the root bases and biases of animal law. As Schaffner explains, there are two possible strands of animal law in play today – laws that attempt to safeguard the rights and interests of animals (animal protection laws) and laws that safeguard human interests in, and uses for, animals (practically all other laws regarding animals). Animals thus lack a consistent status under the law, sometimes appearing as things unworthy of any consideration, sometimes as very valuable things, and only rarely as entities with their own interests, depending on the human use of the animal species or even individual animal in question. Schaffner writes, “Currently, the law criminalizes deliberate individual acts of gratuitous cruelty towards most animals, yet allows and even supports institutionalized cruelty of animals. Because the law is drafted by humans and for humans it virtually always favors human interests over the interests of all other species” (3).

The (grain) meat of Schaffner’s book is in its middle chapters, which give a fact-filled and tremendously useful overview of basic animal law in four areas: anti-cruelty law, animal welfare law, animal control and management, and animals and the constitution. This information is very useful for any activist wishing to engage in the legislative side of animal advocacy, especially activists in the United States (Schaffner does devote some time to discussing animal law in other countries, but this is largely to compare it to American animal law). These sections of the book also give support to Schaffner’s central thesis, that animal law in its current state is arbitrary and contradictory, and more concerned with safeguarding the human use of animals than the interests and well-being of the animals themselves. Take the notion of “accepted agricultural practices,” for example – if a practice of animal agriculture is traditional or “accepted” by a majority in the industry, it is legal, regardless of its cruelty. The fact that many animal industries are given the power to self-regulate as “experts” on the treatment of animals (and even when this is not the case, the fact that most government agencies responsible for determining animal law are actually focused on improving the profits of animal industries rather than protecting the animals), should dispel any illusions on the part of American citizens that the government has animals’ interests in mind. Schaffner’s case studies are also engrossing, allowing readers to see how animal law plays out in concrete cases, and often in comparison to similar cases overseas (the United States usually comes out badly in these comparisons: American animal law is almost uniformly worse for the animals than its counterparts in the UK and Western Europe).

Although the central four chapters are the heart of the book, and worth a read for any advocate – even if all you get out of it is the Alice in Wonderland-esque vertigo that comes from reading legal documents that are almost nonsensical in their definitions of what is and isn’t an animal worthy of moral concern – the first and final chapters are the most significant for animal activism at large. As I mentioned above, the first chapter gives an overview of the central problems in current animal law. The final chapter, meanwhile, describes what the parameters would be of “a legal regime that is non-speciesist, treats animals as subjects, and approaches and protects their independent, individual, and inherent interests” (172).

For activists, this chapter is highly important for providing a vision of a legislative regime worth fighting for, and the arguments we need to make to obtain it. Schaffner describes a handful of approaches to altering the legal regime in a way that is beneficial to animals, based on varying moral and philosophical views. Though there is disagreement amongst animal advocates on what proper animal law would look like, and the methods we should take to get there, it is important for activists to keep in mind that the goal, at least in general terms, of all proponents of animal protection is a legal regime that actually considers animal interests to be valuable. The central change that would need to occur for this to happen is a shift in thinking of animals as subjects rather than objects, as sentient beings rather than mere resources for human use. While some animal rights activists often criticize them, even the welfarist approaches Schaffner describes here attempt to contribute to this shift.

By detailing the inconsistencies and absurdities of animal law as it is currently practiced, Schaffner has provided activists with a valuable tool for engaging in legislative advocacy. As a source of information, a critique of current law, and – most importantly – a manifesto for a future world in which animal law protects the interests of animals rather than the interests of humans in using animals, An Introduction to Animals and the Law is a vital resource for anyone who wants to change the world for animals and lives within a nation of laws – in other words, everyone reading this review.


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