Moving forward in animal law

Not long ago, many animals had little or no legal protection. But animal law has become a burgeoning field in recent years, with more and more professionals showing an interest in it.

There are all kinds of lawyers – from criminal and family lawyers to personal injury and tax lawyers. Over the last few years, animal lawyers have become an important addition to the list. These professionals specialize in protecting the interests of companion and wild animals, and those used for entertainment, food and research.

Animal law is defined as a combination of statutory and case law in which the legal, social or biological nature of non-human animals is an important factor. The issues encompass an expansive spectrum – everything from the philosophy of animal rights and sentience to more pragmatic discussions about Constitutional issues related to standing to sue, the definition of “animals” and various interpretations as to what constitutes animal cruelty.

The study of animal law reveals its impact on every category of law and legal practice, including tort, contract, criminal, family and even estate planning. It’s a field that’s gaining in popularity both in law schools and among individuals and legal practitioners across the country. Today, more than 120 law schools in the U.S. offer courses in animal law. Several Canadian law schools have also started offering animal law classes over the past few years, including the University of Toronto and Queen’s University.

Historical precedent

Animal law may be a relatively new field, but concern for the welfare of animals isn’t. British citizen Reverend Humphrey Primatt is credited with one of the first publications outlining concern for the moral and legal status of animals. His 1776 article, “A Dissertation on the Duty of Mercy and Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals”, pleaded for the care of animals. However, it wasn’t until 1809 that Parliament seriously considered the first bill for the protection of animals. Despite the efforts of its proponent, Lord Erskine, the bill was defeated in the House of Commons. In 1822, Parliament finally adopted the Dick Martin Act to prevent the cruel and improper treatment of cattle.

The American legal system did not reflect concern for the welfare of animals until later in the 19th century. Henry Bergh led the state of New York in a crusade for the passage of the nation’s first anti-cruelty laws. He was also instrumental in obtaining a state charter for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The New York law of 1867 created the blueprint for laws that other states would follow for the next century. These laws focused on the well-being of animals and not just the property interests of the owners.

Today, the nation’s largest animal welfare organization is the Humane Society of the United States. Founded in 1954, the HSUS gained prominence under the leadership of John A. Hoyt, its president and CEO from 1970 to 1997. The organization’s overarching mission is to create meaningful social change for animals by advocating for sensible public policies, investigating cruelty, working to enforce existing laws, and educating the public about animal issues. In 2005, the HSUS launched its animal protection litigation program and won numerous groundbreaking legal victories, including court orders blocking the slaughter of American horses for human consumption; the enforcement of state laws banning canned hunting; a restriction of commercial trapping; an end to the advertising of illegal cockfighting magazines on; a strengthening of regulations for the protection of dogs in puppy mills; and an end to unlawful sport hunting programs in national wildlife refuges.

European countries are recognized for their role in animal law issues. In the Swiss canton of Zurich, for example, animal lawyer Antoine Goetschel is employed to represent the interests of animals in cruelty cases. Swiss animal protection laws are some of the strictest in the world, with an excellent record of enforcement. The International Institute for Animal Law, which is composed of a group of attorneys and judges from around the world, acts as a clearinghouse for animal-related legal information, from pending legislation through relevant case law digests.

Exponential growth

The animal law movement is growing exponentially as more legal practitioners discover ways to incorporate it into their practices. State bar associations now offer members the opportunity to participate in animal law committees and sections. “Our committee seeks to educate the legal community and the layperson on this growing practice area, exploring partnering opportunities and keeping abreast of pertinent legislation,” says Monique L’Italien, chairman of the Florida Bar’s animal law committee.

At the law school level, the Animal Legal Defense Fund ( (ALDF) is developing student chapters, encouraging young lawyers to consider animal law as part of their future careers while promoting education and sponsoring scholarships. Today there are more than 140 U.S. chapters and eight international chapters of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund ( The chapter associated with the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon sponsors an annual animal law conference, now in its 18th year. This year’s conference, scheduled for October 15 to 17, is entitled “Animals in Crisis: The Laws we Have, Getting the Laws we Need”.

The ALDF was founded in 1979 as one of the first organizations dedicated to promoting the field of animal law and using the law effectively to protect the lives and defend the interests of animals. Founder Joyce Tischler serves as the organization’s chief legal counsel, supervising the activities of hundreds of attorneys interested in protecting animals. Through its efforts, the ALDF has blazed a trail for stronger enforcement of anti-cruelty laws and more humane treatment of animals in every corner of American life.

Getting involved

Those interested in more information on animal law can participate in Animal Law 101, a web-based seminar featuring ALDF professionals that addresses the issues of defining animal law, describes the role of animal lawyers, and offers opportunities to assist the ALDF in its legal efforts. Law students can submit law review articles for publication to the Animal Law Review (Lewis & Clark Law School), Journal of Animal Law & Ethics (University of Pennsylvania chapter) and the Journal of Animal Law (Michigan State University College of Law chapter). The Michigan State University College of Law maintains an animal legal and historical web center with more than 1,000 full text cases and more than 50 topics that provide comprehensive explanations of some of the more interesting issues of animal law.

You can also join national animal rights organizations like the HSUS or ALDF and participate at the community level with local humane societies or rescue organizations. Who knows…you might decide to go back to school and become an animal lawyer yourself