Law and Conversation

August 13, 2010

Factory farms and animal law

The New York Times just reported a negotiated agreement between Ohio farmers and humane treatment advocates “to bar new construction of egg farms that pack birds in cages, and to phase out the tight caging of pregnant sows within 15 years and of veal calves by 2017.”  (Hat tip:  Chicago lawyer Ava George Stewart.)

One farmer is quoted in the article as saying that his chickens won’t produce if they’re not happy.  New Yorker staff writer Michael Specter provides a description of how factory farms work in his article, “The Extremist,” which appeared in the April 4, 2003 issue of The New Yorker; if you think that farmer’s argument sounds reasonable, read Specter’s description for yourself and decide.  (You can also do a search for “factory chicken farms” or “factory farms” and click on the links.)

The article reminds me that animal law is a growing area of the law, which I wrote about in “Animal Law Comes Into Its Own”, the cover story for the August 2007 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal.  As Texas Tech University School of Law Professor Gerry W. Beyer explained to me, there’s a little bit of animal law in every area of law. 

As I wrote in my article, Beyer went on to explain that criminal law encompasses cruelty to animals, as may tort law, which also includes negligent injuries of animals, including veterinary malpractice, and animal injuries to humans, such as dog bites. Estate planning may involve animals when a client wishes to ensure that pets will continue to be cared for after the client’s death. Family lawyers know that pets may be the subject of custody disputes when a couple’s marriage or family relationship breaks up.  Farming, breeding, buying, and selling of animals require a special expertise within business law. Real estate and municipal lawyers may need to develop a corresponding expertise for those concerned about living downwind of a hog confinement operation or who wish to keep their potbellied pig pets when residing in a swanky suburb or condominium.  In fact, animal law has grown so much that there’s actually an animal-law casebook that most, if not all, of the U.S. law schools that now offer animal law courses use, and a few law schools publish animal law journals.  Many bar associations, including the American Bar Association and the Illinois State Bar Association, have added sections or committees on animal law to their other member specialty subgroups.  An Illinois lawyer, Amy Breyer, was the first chair of ISBA’s Animal Law Section Council, started the first animal law practice in the state, and writes the Animal Law Blog, a comprehensive, up-to-date resource for anyone interested in the subject.

California lawyer Bruce Wagman, who coauthored the animal law casebook, also spoke to me for my article.  Though he himself is a vegan, he refrained from condemning those of us who continue to eat meat.  He said to me, “Most people want to know that animals will be treated well while on this earth. The circle of practices regarding animals that everyone is OK with is getting smaller.”

Given the evolution in people’s attitudes and the law, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether, say, a century or two from now, either factory farms or, even more broadly, killing and eating animals may be generally viewed as barbaric practices comparable to slavery, whose supporters used to justify by saying that it was necessary for the economy, or that people from Africa or of African ancestry were subhuman, or that the slaves were actually happy with their lot.  Those proponents weren’t generally demons, any more than we who eat meat today are; they lived in a different world, had a different mindset than we do, and probably preferred not to become uncomfortable by giving too much thought to the obvious sickness of slavery.  Will our descendants someday view arguments in favor of industrial meat production and/or eating meat as ridiculous and revolting as we now view those that were used to justify slavery?  If so, how will, and how can, the law develop?

Here are a few books that discuss the livestock industry, eating animals, and related matters:

“Eating Animals,” by Jonathan Safran Foer

“The Lives of Animals,” by J.M. Coetzee

“Animal Liberation,” “The Ethics of What We Eat,” and other books by Peter Singer

“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair

“The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan

You can listen to interviews with Foer and Singer on “The Book Show,” a program available on podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Company, on January 26, 2010 and March 19, 2010 (Foer) and July 27, 2010 (Singer).  A recent documentary, “Food, Inc.,” deconstructs the food industry; there’s a paperback of the same name that’s marketed as a “participant guide” to the movie.

UPDATE:  While waiting to get my car fixed this morning, I noticed that the cover story for the current issue of Time magazine is Jeffrey Kluger’s “Inside the Minds of Animals.”  Kluger provides evidence from experts that animals DO think and suffer, contrary to historical views to the contrary.

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