Layman’s Guide to the World of Animal Protection Law

scales of justice, animal law

Why animal protection laws fail the animals they are designed to protect.

 ‘Justice, indeed, so far as animals are concerned, seems in earlier days to have dispensed altogether with her scales, and to have worn a bandage over that eye which should have been turned to the wrongs against dumb animals’

E. Fairholme, A century of work for animals, 1924

There are animal protection laws galore around the world and it would be sensible to believe that we can all sit back and be assured that all the animals are safe from harm. But of course, this could not be further from the truth and this is why.

The United Kingdom likes to boast that it was the first to introduce animal welfare law to the world which protected horses, cattle and sheep from cruel treatment in 1823, but the USA also claims this honour under their Liberties 92 and 93 of the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony Code in 1641. Since that time the UK and most other countries have introduced volumes of legislation protecting captive animals from cruel treatment and willdlife from persecution in the wild, but there are still great swathes of the globe that still do not have such laws and only recently have countries like China and Mexico given a thought to enacting them. Most countries would not have introduced any form of animal protection laws without the pressure from welfare and rights organisations over the decades and it is fair to say the subject would probably have been ignored by most governments otherwise.

Even now governments prevaricate and only introduce them if they also help human health and wellbeing. The effectiveness and standard of enforcement is often poor and governments usually leave most of the enforcement to charities, as in the UK, where the RSPCA take private prosecutions. Some countries go as far as to give Humane Society and SPCA officers the legal powers to enforce them so that they do not have to bother.

Laws biased towards human interests.

Animal protection laws are mainly focused on benefiting human interests over those of the animals based on the long-standing view that they have been generally judged as property, objects or chattels with no rights. This is something called ‘legitimate human interests’ whereby consideration is given to a law’s impact on all the different groups whose financial or social interests might be adversely affected by its introduction, particularly in the case of science and farming.

Every piece of legislation always has get-out clauses to enable us, for the sake of expediency and economics, to ignore, sidestep or over-rule any protection and allows us to kill, cause suffering, disturb, hunt or capture them when we feel it is necessary for our purposes. And so, we have the situation where medical science is exempted from any liability in causing pain and suffering to them during experiments and the farming industry can legally keep them in systems which are overtly cruel to keep us fed because it is all done for legitimate human interests.

Most animal welfare law only protects livestock, companion animals and wild captive animals and mostly excludes wildlife with domestic animals getting more protection than captive ones and they more than wild animals. Welfare laws in general do not have enough emphasis on their right to live out their natural lives, the right to equal consideration of interests and the right to be treated according to their natural instincts.

Laws are unenforceable, ignored or circumvented.

Although most countries have some form of welfare and conservation laws, they are either unenforceable, are easily ignored or circumvented, are full of exemptions and loopholes and vary greatly in effectiveness. Frustratingly Governments and international law makers never appear to learn the lesson that specific, powerful and easily enforced legislation is what is required and instead insist  on using extremely vague and woolly wording such as “adequate”, “causing” and “unnecessary” to prefix such words as suffering, care, and housing and these phrases then become open to interpretation, whereupon defence lawyers, theorists, philosophers, scientists and academics spend lifetimes discussing, debating and arguing over their precise connotation.

Animal law is low priority

Most courts tend to rate animal abuse cases as being relatively unimportant which is reflected by the arguably low sentences or punishments handed out fines are minimal and prison terms almost unheard of mainly because magistrates appear in many cases to have more sympathy for the defendants rather than the animals involved, usually through clever mitigation by defence lawyers

Although the USA has a poor record on animal welfare they treat serious and violent animal cruelty offences stringently as they feel they are often associated with other crimes and courts hand out far more prison terms to first offenders and juveniles. New Zealand separates what they call wilful and reckless ill-treatment and specifies that a person commits an offence if they wilfully ill-treat an animal in such a way that: the animal is permanently disabled or the animal dies; or the pain or distress caused is so great that it is necessary to destroy it in order to end its suffering; or the animal is seriously injured or impaired involving prolonged pain and suffering or a substantial risk of death or loss of a body part or permanent or prolonged loss of bodily function and requires treatment by or under supervision of a veterinarian. This is the kind of detail that is needed.

The World Animal Protection charity publishes an Animal Protection Index which produces a comprehensive grading of the standards of each countries’ animal protection laws and attitudes which comes up with some surprising results. The grading is based heavily on whether countries give any kind of priority to protection and recognise them as being sentient. They are graded from A: having a good standard to G: with no real protection. Only 6 countries including the UK, Sweden and Switzerland get A status and the USA and Canada are down in the D category with India. Australia is graded better as C, but most of the African, Middle East and Asian countries are down in E & F along with Russia. A few countries are now doing the right thing by accepting sentience, including the French in 2015, who modified French Civil law to change the classification of them from personal property to ‘living beings gifted with sentience’.

International laws & agreements.

There are a few internationally enforced regulations, and these are mainly found within the European Union and are mostly concerned with livestock rather than companion animals. As always there are get out clauses about respecting religious rites, cultural traditions, and regional heritage. This allows for such things as kosher slaughter, bull fighting and the cruel antiquated use of them in festivals. Under European (EU) law welfare is not a high priority and the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1999 has a protocol to “ensure improved protection and respect for the welfare of animals as sentient beings”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations, have negotiated, discussed, researched and enacted a plethora of international agreements, rules, edicts, regulations, accords and decrees to help protect mainly livestock. These laws cover all types of domesticated animals in most situation such as how they are transported, killed, culled, experimented on, cared for, housed, sold, bred, imported and exported.

There are also international agencies, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which have negotiated international agreements and treaties for the protection and conservation of wild animals controlling all aspects of how they are conserved, traded, hunted and culled. Most of these have been in existence for decades, but all too often governments all around the world believe, or pretend, that just passing a law it solves the problem. But without effective and tireless enforcement, laws are ignored, and the result is that the problem which a law was intended to tackle simply persists.

International wildlife conservation laws and treaties are not necessarily there to protect or to look out for their welfare, but are trade agreements allowing them to be used as a resource by negotiating quotas and maintaining population numbers and some allow recreational and aesthetic use of them as well as scientific, economic and cultural usage. This is deemed as the only way to obtain the world’s governments to agree to take part in such treaties, but even those that do sign up to protect certain species will not necessarily set up the infrastructure to enforce it. The United Nations has constant difficulty in trying to control wars, people smuggling and nuclear arms so there is little chance of protecting and saving animals. 

Some nations might vigorously stick to the rules while others and individuals are open to corruption and in many cases, what looks good on paper is an impossibility to enforce in practice. Of course, it is better to have international cooperation in conserving animals rather than none, but countries that have vested interests often negotiate hard before signing to get exemptions to continue age old activities. They can reserve the right not to protect certain species that might hurt their economy or withdraw later if they feel it is not working in their favour.

Trade agreements rather than protection.

A typical example of this is the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which has endeavoured since the Second World War, not necessarily to protect whales from extinction, which most people believe they do, but to try and ‘conserve’ whaling stocks for future hunting. Without them whales would have disappeared long ago, as most whaling nations historically have taken the short-sighted attitude of making the most out of them before they were eradicated, just like the American bison that were nearly hunted to extinction on the same principle. The whaling nations were never happy to vote in favour of a mandatory ban on killing whales and many threatened to leave and continue hunting.

The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations heralded as the great protector of endangered species from being over exploited is just a trade agreement not a ban. CITES has been in operation for over 40 years with 182 countries signed up and yet smuggling of endangered species is still rampant and is up there with the illegal drugs and arms trade revenues with money from smuggling often makeing its way to help fund these trades. Various estimates put the value of worldwide animal smuggling between £4 billion ($6 billion) to £14 billion ($19 billion) and with the black-market price on rhino horn worth $65,000 a kilo, a live gorilla $40,000, a live tiger $50,000 and a tiger skin $35,000 it is easy to see why. Many countries, particularly in the Middle and Far East, still resist joining which means loopholes abound round the world that can be used as staging or holding posts for these animals and products.