Animal law is a growing area of study and practice due to the many ways in which non-human animals (animals) are used in a wide variety of locations.
Worldwide, non-humans, including fully conscious companion animals and other thinking and feeling non-human beings, are legally regarded as numb property or things, meaning they can be subjected to incredibly invasive, painful and deadly treatments without breaking any law.
In the United States, the Federal Animal Welfare Act has redefined the word “animals” to exclude lab rats, mice, and other living things that are clearly animals and are used by millions. While some people think this is a joke, it isn’t, and countless scientists continue their work without questioning this scandalous taxonomic revision.
Source: Sydney University Press, with permission.
I’ve previously posted a number of essays on different animal law systems, and I’m glad Elizabeth Ellis of the School of Law at the University of Wollongong was able to answer some questions about her new landmark book. Australian Animal Law: Context and Criticism.1
Some key areas it considers include unnecessary animal suffering, the exemption of most animals from the application of cruelty laws, legal conflicts of interest, the hidden nature of the use of animals, and the lack of transparency in animal laws.
Marc Bekoff: Why did you write? Australian animal law?
Elizabeth Ellis: There has been a lot of work on animal law in Australia over the past two decades: a proliferation of university courses, legal reforms and a growing body of literature. But all this good work has not been matched by substantial legal reform. While there have been some victories for animals, these have been relatively modest and the major issues remain largely unchanged.
Even fairly modest improvements stall for years, as evidenced by the recent process to create national poultry welfare standards. I wanted to explore this resistance to change by examining the common threads in the legal and regulatory framework in the different sectors of animal use.
MB: How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
EE: I’ve long been concerned about government-sanctioned animal cruelty, such as live animal exports. While I primarily viewed the issues as political, some of my concerns were associated with my teaching and research interests in public law, especially issues of government accountability and transparency.
When writing a basic law textbook for freshmen, I took the opportunity to include references to animal conservation issues to illustrate the practical workings of the law. Around the same time, animal law was emerging as a discipline in Australia, and the work of other lawyers, as well as the founding of Voiceless, helped me see how law could play an important role in bringing about change.
In 2008, I introduced Animal Law as an elective in the LLB degree at the University of Wollongong, making it one of the earliest courses taught in Australia.
MB: Who is your intended audience?
EE: The book is a resource for Australian law students and educators, but it aims to provide critique that is also accessible to scientists in the field of animal studies and the general public. I hope my contextual approach will expose a wider audience to the huge gap between official animal welfare stories and the lack of legal protections that animals actually receive.
MB: What are some of the topics you weave into your book, and how does your work differ from others dealing with similar topics?
EE: Existing Australian legal texts tend to address the regulatory issues within each animal use sector in a relatively discreet manner. As I explore similar areas, I wanted to emphasize the common regulatory features across all sectors, including those offering the most protection.
The similarities include regulations that are industry-dominated, fragmented, largely invisible, poorly enforced and abnormal. The link between these characteristics amplifies their effect. I also highlight the link between governance issues and the more theoretical and ethical questions underlying animal conservation.
Changing governance arrangements not only opens up opportunities for legislative reform, but also provides insight into our understanding of non-human animals, which in turn influences regulatory arrangements. In conjunction with this, I examine how current institutional arrangements contribute to official animal welfare narratives that are widely promoted but factually inaccurate.
MB: What are some of your most important messages?
EE: The emphasis on similarities in the regulation of all animal use exposes the systemic nature of Australia’s legal problems and why it has been so difficult to bring about meaningful change. The main conclusion is the urgent need to establish truly independent legal bodies at both the state and federal levels to take responsibility for all aspects of animal protection..
At present, agricultural departments act as animal protection gatekeepers, despite their obvious conflicts of interest. While reviews of animal welfare legislation are currently underway in most Australian jurisdictions, the proposed reforms are severely limited as the same departments oversee the review process!
But it is not only the direct impact of this conflict of interest that is highly problematic. Agriculture departments play a key role in promoting the idea that Australia has very good animal conservation, a clearly false narrative made possible by secrecy, not only of much animal use, but also of regulatory action.
An important task of independent statutory bodies would be to promote greater openness about the practices permitted by law and the extent of their regulation. More generally, treating animal conservation as a secondary function of a government agency perpetuates the idea that non-human animals have limited moral significance.
In contrast, when we insist on the establishment of separate, independent bodies, we recognize that animals have inherent value and should be considered in their own right, and not just as a complement to human activity. This dynamic relationship between the material and the ideational is an important aspect of the book.
MB: Are you hopeful that as people learn more about animal rights, they will appreciate the current challenges and why it is so important to work on big change?
EE: It’s pretty clear that when people know and see what the law actually allows to do to animals, many see the need for substantial change. The challenge is to expose the reality of both animal use and the limits of current regulations. With governments cracking down on undercover activities exposing animal suffering, it is critical that responsibility for animal protection is transferred to well-equipped, independent agencies committed to a much greater degree of transparency about our use of animals.