These stories, often horrific and sad, are among the many that have shed light on the little-known practice of animal welfare law. Although a non-traditional legal field, animal welfare law involves traditional subject matter, such as tort, contract, criminal, and constitutional law. Animal law courses are currently taught in over 95 law schools1, and many state and local bar associations now have animal law committees. But what exactly does an animal welfare attorney do?
While most attorneys have encountered suits involving companion animals, commonly referred to as "pets," animal welfare law also encompasses those animals living in the wild as well as animals used for entertainment, food, and research. Animal welfare attorneys seek to protect all animals from abuse under existing statutory and case laws and seek to extend animal protection through legislative change.
Despite the growing recognition of animals as sentient beings — capable of feeling pain and understanding their environments — the biggest hurdle for animal welfare attorneys remains the property status of animals. When seeking remedies in civil court, an animal welfare attorney must determine:
- Who has standing to sue when an animal is injured/abused
- What types of animal injuries/abuses are actionable
- What damages are available to a litigant seeking justice
Where non-companion animals are involved, a private right of action to bring suit on behalf of animals is typically unavailable. For these animals welfare is the responsibility of overseeing government agencies, such as the US Department of Agriculture and the US Fish and Wildlife Services. Animal welfare attorneys may be called upon to bring suit against such government agencies where proper enforcement of the existing animal welfare laws has been ignored.
However, it is important to note that not all animals are protected under the existing animal welfare laws (for example, chickens are exempt from the Humane Slaughter Act).2 In fact, some of the most heinous slaughter procedures are considered standard or ritual/religious practices and are therefore immune to government agency intervention.
Similarly, an animal welfare attorney may lend support in stopping felony animal abuses, but criminal prosecution of animal abusers depends upon a sympathetic prosecutor who recognizes the inherent danger an animal abuser poses to the human population. As seen in the Michael Vick case, a prosecutor must be willing to devote the time and energy necessary to prove the allegations of animal abuse.
While society has placed a lesser status on the lives of non-human animals, the psychological connection between violence towards animals and subsequent violence towards humans is undeniable. Therefore, even persons who would not otherwise care about the welfare of animals have a stake in the outcome of a criminal animal abuse case for the abuser's potential threat to society.
The role of an animal welfare attorney varies from case to case and includes pushing for new legislation where the existing animal welfare laws are woefully inadequate. Nonetheless, and despite the frustrations and frequent setbacks, animal welfare law can be very rewarding. Every so often there is a victory…and it is one that can be felt by animals everywhere.
About the Author
Anna Morrison-Ricordati is an attorney practicing animal welfare law and general civil litigation in Chicago, Illinois. For more information please visit www.animalwelfareattorney.com.
1 Animal Legal Defense Fund, www.aldf.org/content/index.php?pid=83, last accessed 04/06/08
2 Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131 et. seq.; Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter, 7 U.S.C.A. § 1901, 1902, 1904, 1906, 1907