Report on the Animal Law Conference at Harvard (Mar-Apr 2007)

Remember When You Thought You Could Change the World? You Still Can.� That was the theme of a conference sponsored by the Animal Legal Defense Fund and hosted by the prestigious Harvard Law School at the beginning of April 2007.

There were approximately 400 attendees who included lawyers, professors, doctors, veterinarians, CEO�s and students considering cutting edge approaches to issues of animal protection.

Dr Bernard Rollin, Bruce Wagman, Professor David Favre, Paul Waldau, Chris Green and Adam Karp were among the list of speakers who addressed the conference, along with Professor Song Wei from China, Katrina Sharman from Australia, and Ian Robertson from New Zealand/England. In addition to the use of animals in agriculture and research, the conference addressed issues of animal hoarding; legal strategies, successes and developments in litigation, and the increasing role and opportunities for lawyers in the area of animal protection.


Dr Ian Robertson is a barrister specializing in the area of animal law. He is also a veterinarian, and a law lecturer who has taught the subject of animal law at Canterbury Law School in Christchurch, New Zealand, and Leeds Law School in England. He defines �animal law� as a developing discipline within the general body of law, which considers the legal issues in all human interactions with animals, which takes into account the unique nature of animals while concurrently considering the human relationship with them.

In view of animal welfare developments such as the proposed United Nations Declaration on Animal Welfare, the latest animal welfare initiatives of the EU , and enactment of updated animal welfare legislation by a number of states, Dr Robertson suggested it is timely to develop a global model of animal welfare based on �best practice�. He compared definitions, standards, procedures and content of equivalent animal welfare law from different jurisdictions around the world to illustrate the inconsistencies and gaps, within �contemporary animal welfare legislation�. He also indicated that issues of sustainability and sentience were issues that appropriately belonged in animal welfare legislation, and suggested that legislators may need to consider perspectives outside of traditional western concepts of animals, such as those held within indigenous cultures. Reminding the audience of the BSE experience, Dr Robertson stated that in view of increasing state interdependence in a global community, systems based on best practice, rather than currently accepted minimum standards, were an important legal step to implement the advances made by organisations such as the OIE, and to avoid significant risks to humans and animals alike. He said that a global model would serve as a guide for future animal welfare developments by Governments and NGOs, and serve as a blue print for the future of animal protection.


While the black letter law may vary between jurisdictions, the legal issues are usually very similar.
A number of speakers addressed the issue of the level of compensation in the event an animal is injured, or dies.

The law currently classifies animals as personal property. In the event of damages to a pet resulting in a pets death or costs of treatment, then the law�s usual starting point is to compensate the owner based only upon the �fair market value� of the animal as property. The owner of a dog or cat that has special uses or services, for example used for breeding, or if the animal is specially trained, could argue for higher compensation on the basis of lost potential earnings but, in general, there is no compensation for emotional damages.

Given the key role of veterinarians in areas of animal welfare and health care, veterinarians are increasingly the focus of consumer enquiries and potential claims. Two particular speakers provided important insights to cases where lawyers were either defending or prosecuting a case involving questions of the standard of veterinary care.

Chris Green is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and a member of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association. He recently wrote The Future of Veterinary Malpractice Liability in the Care of Companion Animals, and has participated in the California Veterinary Medical Association�s Non-Economic Recovery Task Force, helping the organization explore legislative options to address the profession�s increasing liability exposure, and later acted as an advisor to the American Veterinary Medical Association�s Task Force on the Legal Status of Animals, addressing those same issues at the national level. Adam Karp is a lawyer who exclusively practices animal law. He is a vice-chair of the American Bar Association's Animal Law Committee, and his presentation included cases and insights which dealt specifically with legal issues prosecuting or defending veterinarians who were the subject of a veterinary malpractice enquiry.

Practical perspectives were provided on issues which occur in veterinary practice around the world, including for example, issues of informed consent, veterinary records, issues of confidentiality, and the practice by some vets of holding on to pets (or pets ashes in the event of cremation) until owners settled outstanding accounts.


The definition of an �animal activist� may vary. The activities of animal activists may be legally defined as legal or illegal. England, for example, has enacted laws specifically to address the illegal activities of animal activists (The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005). The USA has recently enacted the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which has a stated purpose of providing the Department of Justice with the necessary authority to apprehend, prosecute, and convict individuals committing animal enterprise terror.

The US law states that is an offence if an individual �interferes� with the operations of an animal enterprise. There are legal concerns that the definition of �interfere� is vague and may have a chilling effect to activists� freedom of speech, and questions as to what constitutes a legal or illegal activity. Similarly, given that the penalties vary according to the extent of economic damages, there are legal concerns with the definition and breadth of the term �economic damages�.

In view of conflicting perspectives of the uses of animals, activists, industry and the legal profession have justifiable cause to be interested in the approach of English and American legislators whereby certain activities of animal activists may be classified as terrorism.


The conference held at Harvard illustrated the diversity of approaches and degrees of prioritization to issues involving animals. Professor Song Wei, an animal law professer from University of Science and Technology of China, spoke about the recent occurrences in China where the government organized �dog-killing teams� in response to the diagnosis and subsequent death of 3 people from rabies. More than 55,000 dogs were killed throughout Mouding County in China. The dogs were hung, electrocuted, beaten to death, or �humanely� euthanased. Reportedly, dog owners were offered five yan (approximately 65 cents) for killing their own animals. Concerns for public health prompted the establishment of further dog killing teams in other Chinese counties.

In contrast, other speakers illustrated the interest and involvement of non Government Organisations and businesses who are incorporating animal welfare standards into their terms of practice. For example, Marks and Spencers, one of the largest retails stores in the United Kingdom, considers animal welfare standards in its purchases. It now only offers free range eggs both in shell and as egg ingredient, in it�s entire range of processed foods and ready made meals. McDonalds in the UK has changed egg suppliers to those that use only free range eggs, and recently won an RSPCA award for their commitment to improving animal welfare. Similarly, the World Bank has listed animal welfare standards in it�s list of criteria before lending on certain ventures.

The involvement of lawyers through litigation and legislation were a continuing theme of the conference at Harvard, and the conference ended by listing the vast array of ways that educators and students are involved in developing animal protections.


The continued development of animal law as a legal discipline is evidenced by the increasing number of animal law chapters within legal jurisdictions, and by the growing number of law schools offering animal law as an elective course. Currently there are approximately seven universities offering animal law in Australia and the United Kingdom, over 80 in the United States, and others in Portugal, Switzerland, Israel, Canada and China. In New Zealand, both Auckland and Canterbury universities have offered courses in their law schools. The course in Auckland has been taught by Peter Sankoff, a founder of the Animal Rights Legal Advocacy Network; and the course in Canterbury has been taught by Dr Ian Robertson who brings an objective and practical approach from his background and insights as a veterinarian in addition to being the barrister specializing in animal law.

Animal law continues to develop in spite of the fact that there are a number of people, who still fail to realize the importance of animal law to New Zealand. The Hon. Jim Anderton, Minister of Biosecurity, recently congratulated the Canterbury Law School for providing a course that was essential to keep New Zealand up with foreign developments. In his address to the students and invited guests at the Animal Law course held at Canterbury University Law School, the Minister stated �Our primary industries are the only ones we have with the scale, sophistication and global connections to be genuine global businesses�. Agriculture, research, medicine, and the use of animals in entertainment, sports, and their role as pets, are just some of the areas where animals impact New Zealand society, culture and economy.

Accompanying the growing interest in animal law is the growing use of legal and legislative initiatives in the area of animal welfare. For example, in New Zealand, a complaint based on a legal technicality was made by ARLAN to the Government�s Regulations Review Committee about the confinement of layer hens in cages. The action failed to result in a change to the code of welfare, but it did serve as a reminder of the active use of due legal process in the development of animal protection legislation in New Zealand.

Conferences such as the one held at Harvard; the increasing number of animal law courses being provided at law schools; the increasing public awareness of the animal welfare issues and food safety; the recognition of animals in legislation as �special property� affecting a broad number of areas including welfare, trusts and matrimonial dissolutions; are just some of the indicators illustrating that issues of animal law are relevant, central to our society � and here to stay.

The photo shows two of the overseas speakers who attended the Animal Law Conference held at Harvard: Dr Ian Robertson of New Zealand/England, and Katrina Sharman, who is the in-house legal counsel for "Voiceless" in Australia

Article added: 02/2008