Animal Law: No Longer a Sideshow

Published December 1, 1999

“Would even bacteria have rights?” Richard Epstein, professor of law at the University of Chicago, recently asked The New York Times. “There would be nothing left of human society if we treated animals not as property, but as independent holders of rights.”

Nevertheless, the concept of animals as independent holders of rights is gaining momentum in law schools and courts around the country. Law schools at both Harvard and Georgetown University have established classes in animal law. and there are student animal law organizations at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, the University of Oregon, Harvard, Stanford, the University of California, and the Chicago Kent School of Law, among others. The Association of the Bar of the City of New York established an animal law committee in 1991.

The courts have been equally active in the area of animal law, as have voters. In Hegins, Pennsylvania organizers of an annual pigeon shoot called off the event when lawyers sought an injunction on the grounds of animal cruelty, the Times reported. In November 1998, voters in Missouri and Arizona approved the nation’s first-ever ballot measures outlawing cockfighting, becoming the 46th and 47th states to ban the practice. Only New Mexico, Louisiana, and Oklahoma still allow it.