The state of Australian animal law and what needs improvement


Animal rights is a burgeoning field of study and practice due to the many ways in which nonhuman animals (pets) are used in a wide variety of settings.

Globally, nonhumans, including fully sentient pets and other thinking, sentient nonhuman beings, are legally considered property or insentient things, which means they can be subject to to incredibly invasive, painful and deadly treatments without breaking any laws.

In the United States, the Federal Animal Welfare Act redefined the word “animals” to exclude laboratory rats, mice and other sentient beings which are clearly animals and used by millions. While some people think it’s a joke, it’s not, and countless scientists continue their work without questioning this outrageous taxonomic revision.

Source: Sydney University Press, with permission.

I have already published a number of essays on different systems of animal law, and I am delighted that Ellis Ellis from the University of Wollongong Law School was able to answer a few questions about his landmark new book. Australian Animal Law: Background and Criticism.1

Some of the key areas she considers include unnecessary animal suffering, the exemption of most animals from the application of cruelty laws, regulatory conflicts of interest, the hidden nature of animal use and the lack of transparency in animal rights.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write Australian animal law?

Elizabeth Ellis: The last two decades in Australia have seen significant work in the field of animal law: a proliferation of academic courses, law reform activities and a growing body of literature. Yet all this good work has not been accompanied by substantial legal reforms. Although there have been some gains for animals, these have been relatively modest and the major issues remain largely unchanged.

Even the most modest improvements are bogged down for years, as evidenced by the recent process of creating national welfare standards for poultry. I wanted to explore this resistance to change by examining the common threads of the legal and regulatory framework in the different sectors of animal use.

MB: What is the link between your book and your background and your areas of interest?

EE: I had long been concerned about government-sanctioned animal cruelty, such as the export trade in live animals. Although I viewed the issues as primarily political, some of my concerns intertwined with my teaching and research interests in public law, particularly issues of government accountability and transparency.

When I wrote a basic law textbook for freshmen, I took the opportunity to include references to animal welfare issues to illustrate how the law works in practice. Around the same time, animal law began to emerge as a discipline in Australia, and the work of other lawyers, as well as the creation of Voicelesshelped me see how the law could play an important role in bringing about change.

In 2008 I introduced animal law as an elective subject in the LLB program at the University of Wollongong, making it one of the first courses to be taught in Australia.

MB: Who is your target audience?

EE: The book is a resource for Australian law students and teachers, but it aims to provide a critique that is equally accessible to animal studies scholars and the general public. I hope my contextual approach will expose a wider audience to the huge gap between official narratives about animal welfare and the lack of legal protection animals actually receive.

MB: What are some of the topics that you incorporate into your book, and how does your work differ from others that deal with similar topics?

EE: Existing Australian legal texts tend to focus on regulatory issues within each animal use sector in a relatively discrete way. Although I am treading similar ground, I wanted to highlight regulatory features that are common to all sectors, including those that offer the greatest protection.

Commonalities include industry-dominated, fragmented, largely invisible, poorly enforced and anomalous regulation. The connection between these characteristics compounds their effect. I also highlight the interrelation between governance issues and the more theoretical and ethical questions underlying animal protection.

Changing governance arrangements not only opens up opportunities for legislative reform, but also informs our understanding of nonhuman animals, which in turn influences regulatory arrangements. Along with this, I explore how current institutional arrangements contribute to official animal welfare narratives that are widely promoted but factually incorrect.

MB: What are some of your main messages?

EE: The emphasis on commonalities in the regulation of all animal uses exposes the systemic nature of the legal issues in Australia and why it has been so difficult to effect meaningful change. The main takeaway is the urgent need to establish truly independent statutory agencies at the state and federal level to assume responsibility for all aspects of animal welfare..

At present, Ministries of Agriculture act as guardians of animal welfare despite their apparent conflict of interest. Although reviews of animal welfare legislation are currently underway in most Australian jurisdictions, the proposed reforms are very limited as the same departments are overseeing the review process!

But it is not just the immediate impact of this conflict of interest that is highly problematic. Departments of Agriculture play a key role in promoting the idea that Australia has very good animal welfare, a patently false narrative enabled by secrecy, not only about animal use but also about the regulatory measures.

A key task for independent statutory agencies would be to foster greater openness about the practices permitted by law and the extent of their regulation. More broadly, treating animal welfare as a secondary function of any government agency perpetuates the idea that nonhuman animals have limited moral significance.

On the other hand, to insist on the creation of separate and independent agencies is to recognize that animals have an inherent value, deserving of consideration in their own right, and not simply as complements to human activity. This dynamic relationship between the material and the ideational is an important aspect of the book.

MB: Do you hope that as people learn more about animal rights, they will come to appreciate the current challenges and why it is so important to work for major change?

EE: It’s pretty clear that when people know and see what the law actually allows animals to do, many appreciate the need for substantial change. The challenge is to expose both the reality of animal use and the limits of current regulatory action. As governments crack down on undercover activities that expose animal suffering, it is essential that the responsibility for animal protection be transferred to independent bodies that are adequately resourced and committed to a much greater level of transparency. high on our use of animals.


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