FAQ: LEGAL

Exactly what is animal law?

What legal rights do animals have?

What about wildlife?

What kinds of laws apply to animals?

Who makes animals laws?

Who enforces animals laws?

Can anybody bring a lawsuit involving animals?

Don't all animals enjoy the same protections?

 

Exactly what is animal law?

First of all, it’s not one simple law, but rather any legal question involving animals, whether bred for companionship, food, entertainment or experimentation – even animals living in the wild. The legal spectrum covered by animal law includes any statutory and/or case law that in any way addresses the welfare of nonhuman species.

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What legal rights do animals have?

Technically, none. The law regards animals as property, with no more redress to mistreatment than, say, your refrigerator. It follows, then, that so-called property owners can, under current law, use their property largely as they see fit. 

There are, however, certain legal limitations governed by standards of humane care, anti-cruelty statutes, even regulations imposing owner obligations for the treatment of animals employed in commerce, including those kept as companions.

The fact is that the law, as it stands today, has such low regard for animals that even companion animals possess no more value than the aforementioned refrigerator. If, for example, your dog or cat is injured or killed by someone, the law says she may not be worth more than you originally paid for her, deep emotional attachments notwithstanding.

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What about wildlife?

The law considers these animals, too, as property, with the distinction here being that the “owners” are state and federal governments. This means wildlife enjoys certain protections under this rubric of law – regulations that prohibit (or permit, within limits) hunting, trapping and other taking of wild animals.

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What kinds of laws apply to animals?

Just about any kind you can name.  Here are various types of law, and examples of how each pertains to animal-specific issues:

Tort Law: Dog bites, nuisance claims, ownership disputes, veterinary malpractice, product liability actions against manufacturers, and sellers or distributors of products or food that have harmed animals.

Property Law: Patents on genetically engineered animals, transfer of ownership, disputes involving condominium members over the right of the members to own animals.

Business Law: Contract disputes between sellers and buyers of animals, and bailment – the rights of businesses dealing directly with animals (e.g., veterinarians, “doggie day care” centers, kennels, groomers, etc.) to hold an animal until they have been paid for their services.

Inheritance Law: Creation and distribution of pet trusts, which are provisions in a person’s will to provide for the care of his/her companion animals after the person’s death.

Family Law: Arrangements involving companion animals in prenuptial agreements, divorce settlements, and pet custody disputes.

Criminal Law: State anti-cruelty statutes protecting companion animals, defense of animal advocates who have been charged with crimes in attempts to advance animal interests, protective orders for domestic violence affecting animals.

Over and above the common types of laws we’ve outlined here, various other legal issues may crop up from time to time, e.g. questions relating to vaccinations, responsibilities with respect to degree of care, etc. Thankfully, these situations are rare, but owners should be cognizant of and prepared for obscure and unforeseen legal challenges that can occasionally arise.

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Who makes animal laws?

What makes our mission all the more challenging is the fact that legislators at four levels of government are responsible for making and enforcing animal laws.  Obviously then, it’s important to know which level is responsible for which legislative arena:

International Law oversees welfare, conservation and trade via multinational accords and other agreements.  

Federal Law (administered mainly through the Animal Welfare Act) pertains to animals used in research, dealers who sell animals to laboratories, animal exhibitors, carriers and intermediate handlers, dog and cat breeders, puppy mills, zoos, circuses, roadside menageries and other transporters of animals.

The Animal Welfare Act does not protect the majority of animals used in research, i.e. birds, rats and mice. Also excluded from the Act are local pet stores, state/county fairs, livestock shows, rodeos, purebred dog and cat shows and "fairs and exhibitions intended to advance agricultural arts and sciences."

Significant federal laws intended to protect animals include:

State Law covers various anti-cruelty measures as well as other laws covering the treatment of animals, including animal fighting, abuse and neglect, among others.

County and Municipal Law oversees the registration of companion animals, the regulation of “nuisance wildlife” and the enforcement of animal-control initiatives such as limits on animal ownership, leash laws, etc.

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Who Enforces Animal Laws? 

Because different laws fall under the jurisdictions of so many government bodies, it’s important to distinguish who is responsible for various enforcement issues.

Federal Laws are managed by agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation (DOT) the Department of Defense (DOD), and the Department of Interior, each of whom may be responsible for conducting inspections on a regular basis. For example, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is charged with inspecting research facilities, circuses and zoos, while the Department of Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service is charged with enforcing the U.S. Endangered Species Act, hunting regulations, the administration of the National Wildlife Refuge System, and other wildlife issues.

Criminal Laws are enforced either by federal or local authorities including police and sheriff’s departments.

Civil Laws fall under the dominion of local agencies such as Animal Care and Control, or, in some cases, local police or sheriff’s departments.  Typical of these offenses are licensing violations (normally adjudicated by an administrative-law judge who would usually levy a fine rather than order an arrest) or property disputes and bodily injury (normally tried in civil court where monetary compensation may be awarded to the plaintiff).

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Can anybody bring a lawsuit involving animals?

In a word, no. While the government can prosecute for criminal abuse and neglect, it’s altogether another matter for individuals to sue for similar violations.

First of all, in order to bring suit you must show that you have legal standing, i.e. you are the animal’s owner, caretaker or a witnessing bystander whose health and/or welfare has been harmed by the event.  If you’re merely a bystander who’s not been directly affected, you can report the violation to the police, but you risk arrest if you take any action on your own. For example, stepping one foot into the owner’s yard to rescue an animal would leave you vulnerable to charges of criminal trespass and theft. Furthermore, there is no provision in federal animal law that allows a citizen to file charges against a federal agency for failure to enforce such laws.

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Don’t all animals enjoy the same legal protections?

Not even close. The degree of protection depends on different factors, frequently those related to an animal’s place in society.  Generally, companion animals (dogs, cats, etc.) and working animals (hunting dogs, horses, etc.) are granted broader protections than animals used for laboratory experiments, living in the wild or “contributing to an infestation” (a family of raccoons nesting in your attic, for instance).

Consider the following examples, and how different laws and regulations in different states may be applied to the very same animal, depending on her circumstances:

  • If your dog – we’ll call her “Maggie” – was born in a puppy mill, she could be legally held in a cage, barely able to move, and provided with substandard food and little (if any) exercise until she was sold to a pet shop or direct buyer. 
  • If Maggie was abandoned and turned over to a laboratory, the law requires that she be sheltered, fed and treated better than she would in a puppy mill, but researchers could legally inject her with infectious agents, deadly chemicals or even cut her open under anesthesia for educational purposes.
  • If Maggie was abandoned in the streets, she could be rounded up and euthanized by an animal control agency, or even shot if she appeared to present a threat. 
  • As a home companion, however, the law requires that Maggie receive ample food, water and shelter, as well as essential veterinary care. You could not beat her or starve her, nor in most circumstances keep her chained to a post all day. You also cannot force her to fight other dogs and, in some jurisdictions, you could go to jail if she bites someone at your urging.

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© 2013 National Anti-Vivisection Society is a
501(c)3 non-profit organization
53 West Jackson Blvd., Suite 1552
Chicago, IL 60604
(800) 888-NAVS or (312) 427-6065
Fax: (312) 427-6524
navs@navs.org
© 2013 National Anti-Vivisection Society is a
501(c)3 non-profit organization