I was fortunate to attend the 16th-annual animal law conference at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. The three-day event brought together attorneys, law students, academics and animal advocates from around the world.


The field of animal law didn’t even exist 30 or so years ago, yet today it is one of the most popular fields for law students eager to make a difference for animals. Interestingly, the conference attracted activists who will likely never see the inside of a courtroom ― they simply want to learn how the law can be used to advance the interests of animals. Oh, and the food was all vegan, which means I put on about three pounds eating baked goods. I felt like Homer Simpson at a Dunkin’ Donuts buffet.


Conference speakers included Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, Paul Waldau of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Joyce Tischler of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Zak Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council and many, many more outstanding advocates.


The panel that made the biggest impression on me had to do with the state of animal law in China, which is to say none at all. Presented by Paul Littlefair of RSPCA International and Amanda Whitfort, who teaches law at the University of Hong Kong, the session covered the legal and cultural hurdles animal advocates must overcome in Asia. In mainland China, no laws exist to protect animals other than animals living in the wild. Paul Littlefair offered one example of a 22-year-old student named Liu Haiyang, who in 2002 brutally attacked bears at the Beijing Zoo with acid. Chinese officials could not charge him with cruelty to animals (since no such legislation exists in China); instead, they charged him with destruction of public property.


As Paul pointed out, a number of factors hamper the advance of animal-protection laws in China. The Chinese, first of all, regard “animal welfare” as a foreign concept incompatible with Chinese culture. They also see it as anti-human; that is, they’re reluctant to grant rights to animals when human rights are so often violated (sound familiar?). The Chinese also point out the hypocrisy inherent in working to help animals when billions of animals are slaughtered for food each year.


None of this means that animal activists should give up fighting for animals in China, of course. In fact, one bright spot Paul mentioned is that the Chinese are becoming more accustomed to having companion animals, which means they are beginning to see animals are more than simply commodities. If they can see that their dog or cat has feelings, perhaps there’s hope. That may seem like a very small advance, but it is a start.


The One Earth: Globalism & Animal Law conference was hosted by the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School.