Preventing a pandemic: Updating the human-animal rule-book

Page 1 of the book "Animals, Welfare and the Law" states: Mentioning "mad cow disease", "foot-and-mouth disease", "bird flu", or "swine flu" is usually enough to have people agreeing that issues of animal-related disease control have a significant impact not just on the animals who suffer from the disease, but also on people and economies.

Now add COVID-19 to that list.

Unsurprisingly,animal welfare advocates across the globe point to the latest pandemic as yet another illustration and consequence of people's relationship with, and use of, animals.

Undoubtedly the whole experience will result in lessons learnt and costly reminders about lessons that should not have been sidelined or forgotten. 

On the basis of one of the oldest lessons advocating that "prevention is better than cure", International Animal Law ("IAL") is of the view that minimising the risks of repetition by evolving the 200-year old law governing the human-animal relationship is a critical element of "preventing" re-occurrence.

Although law is not a panacea, it is nonetheless a key ingredient because it directs and controls people's behaviours.

  • IAL therefore has a focus on evolving the law that governs the human-animal relationship.
  • In particular, IAL states that 200-year old law that continues to benchmark decisions about what is acceptable treatment of an animal based ONLY on its "justifiable" pain and distress ("negative states"), is outdated and consequently no longer fit-for-purpose in a modern world facing global sized risks.

The evidence of how wide and devastating those global size risks can be is clearly illustrated with COVID-19 which has had an obvious detrimental impact on people's lives, livelihoods, freedoms and finances. Whole industries have come to a grinding halt, national economies have taken a hit, and even when a semblance of "normal" returns, it is foreseeable that the consequences of COVID-19 will take months and potentially years to really recover from.

As an alternative to continuing to cling to a worn-out rulebook that potentially contributes to yet another animal-related pandemic, imagine if every standard currently applying to people's responsibilities, and therefore their actions, which involved an animal, was elevated.

  • That elevated standard is already being practised by a minority of leading animal caregivers, but expanding the minority to become the majority has enormous benefits for people and animals alike.
  • That objective is achievable and comparatively simple. It involves amending existing law so that legislation (a) recognises AND concurrently (b) properly applies a full (rather than half) definition of animal "sentience" with a legislative definition that states "sentience means that animals experience negative AND positive states".
  • The definition would shift the standards of animal care so that in addition to people being obliged to protect animals from unnecessary pain, people would ALSO have an enforceable duty to provide animals with opportunities for pleasure, comfort and interest ("positive states/experiences").

According to the founders of IAL, "giving people and animals a life enjoyed rather than just endured is not just the right and timely thing to do, it's  also a legal reform that provides significant economic, environmental and social benefits" that improve the daily life experience of animals AND people".


Do you want to learn more about how society's rulebook requires updating? You can start by looking at "Animals, Welfare and the Law"