Animal Welfare Protection: U.S. Law in the International Context

By: Laurence Cromp-Lapierre 


On September 13, 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the California Animal Law Symposium, a student-run conference on animal legal issues in California, hosted by University of California, Hastings. Several panels discussed the global trends in legal protection for animal welfare and raised concerns about the enforceability of current regulations. The European Union (EU) leads the world with the most progressive approach toward animal welfare. However, there is a lack of an international standard or treaty that meets the hallmarks of an effective global protection regime, as well as ongoing opposition to robust domestic rules to protect animal welfare in countries like the United States and China. Because this area of the law exposes several flaws both in the United States and other nations, many organizations are now fighting worldwide for the implementation of a better legal framework. This post aims to portray the current legal protections available to animals in the United States and abroad.

The most promising model for animal welfare activists appears to be the EU approach. Europeans have a desire to protect animals, as evidenced by EU laws that minimize unnecessary animal suffering and recognize moral status and inherent value in animals. To grant moral status to animals is to say that how they are treated is morally important and that, as human beings, their interests and welfare deserve moral consideration. For example, following the UNESCO Universal Declaration of Animal Rights, an inter-governmental agreement prohibiting cruelty to animals, the Council of Europe created several animal welfare treaties regulating the treatment of animals and fixing regional standards for their transport. The European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals governs the treatment of companion animals and acts as a protective measure against any form of suffering and distress. The system implemented in the EU also offers legal protection to farm animals. The European Convention for the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes acts as the parent legislation to many directives and guarantees a consistent treatment of farm animals throughout the EU. This convention and related directives ban husbandry practices that are common in the United States, such as battery cages for egg-laying hens, veal crates for veal calves, and gestation crates for pregnant sows. The EU has also set much tighter restrictions than the United States on the length, time, and conditions of animal travel. These legal instruments touch on the main issues with respect to the treatment of companion, farm, and research animals. However, the EU could improve its system by increasing the enforcement and level of comprehensiveness of its instruments and by advocating for an international treaty to protect animals.

The United States is far from leading by example on legal protection for animal welfare. Three federal statutes govern animal welfare: the Animal Welfare Act, the Twenty Eight Hour Law of 1877, and the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.  However, these three statutes exclude all poultry, which make up most of the land animals killed for food. Also, there is no federal law that protects farm animals on the farms where they are raised.

The vast majority of states have adopted additional legislation around animals, and the legal system currently in force indicates that most states perceive animals merely as a kind of property belonging to their owners. Viewed as simple machines, animals’ legal protection is often minimal and enforcement of their limited rights is not a priority. For example, state governments have created farm exemptions, aiming to ensure that the statutes about animal welfare do not apply to farm animals. As a result, it is legally permissible for an individual to intentionally torture or maliciously kill farm animals.

Reform is difficult. Anyone wishing to bring a case to court will likely encounter several difficulties.  U.S. politicians have been inclined to foster the meat and dairy industries’ interests, and meat and dairy producers apply their influence to limit regulation and enforcement. Legislation tends to prioritize keeping the cost of food low to spur consumption above protecting animal welfare. Due to the current economic situation and its importance on policy-making, one could expect little or no improvement to happen in this area of law within the upcoming years.

However, animal welfare activists have gained some traction in the United States in that companion animals have now been recognized as having a moral status. Since, in contrast to farm animals, they are not simply viewed as the property of their owners, they benefit from a greater legal status. In sum, U.S. legislation can still be improved and should at least be upgraded to the EU standards.

Finally, two current practices toward dogs in China and Romania demonstrate that, although there might be a desire to protect companion animals in some parts of the world, such beliefs are not universal. For instance, the lack of legislation in China permits the annual meat festival in YuLin, China, where dog meat is sold. Such an event has financial implications, as it creates income and increases consumption. Allegations were made that some dogs are hung upside down, some are beaten and then left to slowly bleed to death and others are skinned and boiled alive. Those are only a few examples of the inhumane treatment given to the animals at this event. In addition such unacceptable treatment, this shocking festival creates monetary incentives for individuals to steal dogs in order to sell their meat.

Similarly, after the death of a child who was allegedly attacked by stray dogs, the Romanian government has adopted a law allowing the mass killing of tens of thousands of stray dogs in the capital. Those animals are treated cruelly. For instance, they are being brutally caught, kept in crowded unclean wire cages, without sufficient food and medical treatment and then poisoned, drowned and tortured to death. Animal welfare activists and animal rights organizations have since put pressure on the Romanian government to implement a new law, notably by organizing demonstrations throughout the world.

Both instances in China and Romania indicate that an international treaty governing animal welfare could address customary practices that the global community agrees are violations of shared norms. In sum, the situation in respect to animal welfare is alarming. The current standards appear to be either insufficient or not adequately enforced, and so legislators at both the national and international levels must take action.

Laurence Cromp-Lapierre is an LL.M. Candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.