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Animal Law

Animal law is defined as the set of legal rules that govern human interactions with nonhuman animals. This guide covers laws and regulations, websites, and a selective bibliography of animal law holdings in the Chastek Library.


Animal law is defined as the set of legal rules that govern human interactions with nonhuman animals. This encompasses everything from the treatment of pet dogs to circus elephants to wild bison. The earliest animal laws viewed animals as property, things to possess and use. Animal laws were largely based on the notion of how humans are injured through activities that involve animals, not on harm to the animals themselves. Today, animals are still regarded are property. They have no legal standing of their own. This is becoming a controversial area of the law, with many activists trying to establish the intrinsic rights of animals themselves, without regard to their interaction with humans. Change has come slowly, and most animal laws and court decisions regarding animals are still based on the concept of animals as property.

Animal Protection Laws

Most animal protection laws exist at the state and local level. “…it is only within the last half of the twentieth century that the U.S. Congress has taken an active role in establishing standards for animal protection, having formerly relied on the states’ anticruelty statutes to do the job on the rare occasions when lawmakers believed there was a job that needed doing… The rise of animal protection laws in the United States over the last several decades is mainly a response by legislators to the heightened concerns of Americans about animal welfare, especially that of their pet dogs and cats.” Jordan Curnutt, Animals and the Law: A Sourcebook (2001).

Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights

Animal welfare advocates argue for stronger laws preventing cruelty and requiring humane treatment. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is committed to this basic approach. By contrast, animal rights advocates oppose any and all human “use” of animals. They invoke the Kantian idea that human beings should be treated as ends, not means- but they extend the idea to animals, so as to challenge a wide range of current practices. These include the use of animals in rodeos, circuses, zoos, agriculture, hunting, and scientific experimentation. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the United States are committed to this basic approach.”  Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Cass R. Sunstein & Martha C. Nussbaum, eds., 2004).

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