The number of law schools offering courses in animal rights has increased from nine to nearly 100 in this decade, reflecting a rising tide of public concern over animal well-being.
“While some animal welfare groups have done a good job of raising awareness of the plights of the giant panda and the previously endangered bald eagle, the greatest strides are yet to be made and involve companion animals and their often-abominable treatment in the United States,” write three concerned law professors in the Journal of Animal Law and Ethics.
“As each new year dawns, its promise suggests that the time may have come to recognize animal sentience (feeling) and finally abolish their continued legal classification as property,” write professors Diane Sullivan, Holly Vietzke and Michael Coyne of the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover, known for its animal rights courses and programs to rescue animals in distress.
“The legal system,” they assert, “continues to fail in compensating owners for the true value of their animals and this failure continues the ludicrous proposition that an animal, even a companion animal, is a worthless, unfeeling object.”
Sullivan, Vietzke and Coyne point out, “Animals display emotion, feel pain, and even exhibit loyalty and sadness. Anyone who interacts with an animal knows this fact. Yet, animals remain classified as property, which means that they can be exploited, harmed, and even killed with little or no legal repercussions or fair monetary compensation.”
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Attesting to the public’s growing awareness is that the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has helped establish 110 student chapters nationally, up from just 12 chapters in 2000.
However, while 43 states have felony-level penalties for certain forms of cruelty to animals, “What is lacking is enforcement on the part of law enforcement personnel, prosecution by district attorneys, and ultimately, judicially-ordered felony sentences,” the law professors write.
They call for heightened involvement by local police who regard themselves as swamped with “people problems,” and fail to take animal abuse reports seriously. Similarly, it is difficult to find a local District Attorney who will prosecute an offender of an animal rights law. As a result, “cases are often resolved with counseling, meager restitution, or community service, instead of felony prosecution,” the law professors write.
The response of public officials, they note, lags behind that of public concern. “Societal attitudes toward the favorable treatment of animals, particularly toward the family pet, have changed.” They point to a recent survey that showed 75 percent of pet owners “consider their pets to be valued family members.”
As of 2004, there were more dogs per household than children, due in part to the increase in same-sex relationships and the fact that many couples choose not to have children. “For many people,” the co-authors write, “pets are their children, and can become the subject of intense custody battles.”
The law professors note that when the European Economic Community signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 there no provisions on animal welfare. But the Treaty of Amsterdam revision 40 years later included an animal welfare protocol.
As a result of work by animal rights activists, “European laws no ban veal crates, regulate the treatment of egg-laying hens and calves, and limit other inhumane actions toward animals,” Sullivan, Coyne and Vietzke write. They say countries adopting progressive legislation in this field include:
Sweden: Prohibits using all great apes and nine species of smaller apes in any research procedures.
Israel: Voted to end force-feeding animals and birds, recognizing the creation of foie gras is “a barbaric and inhumane practice.”
Germany: Has added the words “and its animals” to its constitution, guaranteeing animals the hghest level of legal protection.
The authors urge professors and animal rights activists to speak out regularly “on issues such as internet hunting, canned hunting, horse racing, dog racing, and this nation’s unconscionable handling of companion animals after Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters…”
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