When animal advocates want to measure how far we’ve come as a movement, I can think of no better barometer than the burgeoning field of animal law, which works to stop animal cruelty and suffering through legislation and litigation. Once considered a niche area of legal practice, animal law has expanded over the last 20 years to become one of the rising stars of jurisprudence. Consider, for example, that 10 years ago students interested in animal law had only a handful of schools to choose from. Today, there are more than 100 animal law classes being taught at colleges throughout the United States and Canada. Some of the biggest news concerning animal cruelty is coming out of the US Supreme Court, which earlier this month heard arguments regarding free speech and animal fighting videos ― it’s the first case involving animal cruelty the high court has considered since 1993, when, by the way, only seven states had felony-level anti-cruelty laws; now 46 states do. Even China, where animal welfare is not given much value (the country is notorious for its widespread and indiscriminate killing of dogs, for example), recently drafted its first law to protect animals from abuse. And of course the high-profile Michael Vick dogfighting case did much to push the importance of animal law into the public discourse.
So it was a genuine privilege for me to speak at the 17th-annual animal law conference at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. I was on a panel with Bob Roop of the Humane Society of the United States; Bob spoke about secondary trauma, which he described as the stress caregivers such as shelter workers experience, and I addressed the issue of activist burnout. The session attendees were very engaged in this topic, and it felt good to discuss such an important issue.
The rest of the time I got to take in what was, for the most part, a terrific event: great vegan food, excellent speakers, and a schedule that was extremely well organized. And, of course, you can’t beat Portland, which ranks as one of the best vegan cities anywhere. In keeping with the theme of this year’s sold-out event, “The Links,” the conference explored animal law and its connection to other areas of the law and professional disciplines, philosophies, and social justice movements, including domestic violence, the environment, international trade, religion, and the media.
I found three panel sessions to be particularly interesting. The first was “The People v. Animal Cruelty: Criminal Prosecutions,” led by Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program for ALDF, and Heidi Moawad, deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County, Oregon, district attorney’s office. Heiser and Moawad, both highly experienced animal attorneys, offered advice for motivating district attorneys who are reluctant to prosecute animal abusers (e.g., go to the press, use social media), and they emphasized the link between cruelty to animals and other forms of violence. “People who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit a violent crime against humans,” said Heiser. He noted that public opinion is very important to prosecutors, so writing letters to editors applauding their good work on behalf of animals makes a real difference. Moawad, meanwhile, stressed the need for citizens to report cases of animal abuse or neglect. “Get involved,” she said. I appreciated that the panelists offered suggestions that anyone can do.
Next up, animal law experts Katherine Meyer (partner, Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal) and Bruce Wagman (partner, Schiff Hardin LLP) presented a number of “Hot Topics in Animal Law,” including the aforementioned US Supreme Court case, better known as the United States v. Stevens, which will decide whether video depictions of animal cruelty are expressions of free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. An appeals court had ruled that the government did not have a compelling interest in the animal cruelty shown in dogfighting videos produced and narrated by defendant Robert Stevens, and that “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.” Although Meyer feels the Supreme Court is likely to rule that the ban on such videos, as currently written, is unconstitutional, she said, “The good news is they may say the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals] was wrong when they said the government does not have a compelling interest in protecting animals.”
In his segment of the panel session, Wagman said that as a lawyer, he tries to put himself in the animal’s place, asking “What would they want?” He highlighted seven current cutting-edge animal law issues, including species-specific legislation (e.g., dogfighting statutes); exotic animal ownership; horse abandonment, which has gotten worse in this down economy; animal hoarding; shelter practices (no-kill vs. humane euthanasia); understanding the opposition, which tries to marginalize our interests; and farmed animals. Of the latter, Wagman said, “They’re born into misery, they live in misery, and they die in misery. There’s no moment in their lives when they’re not being mistreated in some way.” Bruce closed the session by suggesting a “compassion revolution,” emphasizing that advocates need to keep their eyes on the prize and promote kindness. “It is emotionally crushing to do this work,” he said. “It’s an effort to redeem our species from eternal shame.”
Finally, “Killing with Keystrokes: CITES, African Elephants & Internet Trade” featured Special Agent Ed Newcomer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Paul Todd of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Not surprisingly, the Internet has helped fuel trafficking in wildlife items, including animal skins, endangered butterflies, elephant tusks, and exotic birds. According to Todd, the US is responsible for two-thirds of the worldwide illegal trade, which represents at least $20 billion a year. Only illegal drugs and weapons are bigger markets, he said. Todd gave a great case study that showed how online auction site eBay has finally banned ivory sales in compliance with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, an agreement among 172 nations meant to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Elephant parts account for 73 percent of the world’s illegal trade in animals, said Todd, and a whopping 98 percent of that is ivory.
Newcomer, a former state prosecutor, draped several confiscated animal skins across a large table at the front of the room. The skin of a dog imported from China was particularly haunting; two almond-shaped holes where the eyes had been gave the skin an eerie, Halloween mask feel. The skin had been expertly dyed to resemble that of a leopard, and it lay between a genuine leopard skin and a tiger skin. Neatly folded beside the dog skin was a large swath of elephant hide, which was passed around the room. It felt surprisingly soft — though I’ve never touched an elephant ― and Newcomer explained the skin is often used for pillow cases. The Internet has had a devastating impact on wildlife, he explained, because it has created a demand in the market for illegal specimens. He used the online sale of an endangered Asian elephant head as an example. “Five people bid on something and one person wins. What do the other four people do? All of a sudden, they need to find themselves an Asian elephant head or some other body part!” Poachers and smugglers are using Skype and online newspaper posts to aid their crimes, but Newcomer said Craigslist is the worst. “It’s the wild west of animal trafficking,” he said.
Newcomer’s final comment, made as an aside, caught my interest. He explained that agents with USFWS get their enforcement authority from the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. But something else falls under the Lacey Act, he said: preventing animal enterprise terrorism. “Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency responsible for enforcing the Lacey Act. There are no agents in Fish and Wildlife interested in the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but the FBI is all over it!”
I have one minor quibble with “The Links,” and having considered this blog post for several days, I have to be candid. While the conference was motivating, informative, and very well executed, it featured one panel that was, in my opinion, a mistake — or at the very least, poorly handled. “The Role of Animals in Indigenous Cultures” was little more than a forum for justifying the exploitation of animals by Native American tribes and criticizing groups working to protect animals. Attendees sat dumbfounded as Native American activist Se-ah-dom Edmo and professor of law and tribal judge Robert Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed why Native Americans have a right to kill animals for food and religious purposes. It was clear that the two panelists were as uncomfortable as their audience when no one laughed at their playful swipes at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Though I recognize the value of understanding everyone’s legal rights, I had to wonder what these clearly intelligent speakers thought they were accomplishing by addressing a roomful of animal advocates. I’m neither an attorney nor a law student, so perhaps the significance of this discussion was lost on me; however, during the lunch break that followed this panel, many attendees complained that such a presentation had no place at an animal rights gathering. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended an AR conference that featured exploitation apologists, and my suggestion is that if such sessions are allowed, they should be moderated debates that allow ample audience participation. All questions at this panel had to be submitted in writing. A session arguing the need for killing animals and poking fun at activists only leaves attendees at these otherwise uplifting events feeling disempowered.
That criticism aside, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School, which hosted the conference with the college’s Center for Animal Law Studies, did an extraordinary job. The sessions moved like clockwork, speakers were well prepared, and the subject matter was highly relevant. Kudos to the unflappable Liberty Mulkani, who coordinated the three-day event with confidence and a smile. My sincere thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to speak this year.