Why Animal Law?

By Andrew Stawasz, Animal Law Society Co-President

More than a few people have asked me why I have chosen to focus my academic and professional pursuits on animal law. As with anyone’s life path, the full answer is long and winding, but for a short version, three factors stand out to me: animal law is impactful, interesting, and fun.

Animal Law Is Impactful.

Whatever one’s views on animal ethics, certain ways that humans treat animals are widely agreed to be off-limits. In other words, we all believe that lines exist that people shouldn’t cross when they interact with animals—lines that are often denoted with terms like “cruelty,” “neglect,” and “abuse.” The law represents one tool to ensure (i) that people are not able to cross those lines easily and (ii) that appropriate consequences attach when they do.

While it is rapidly growing, animal law is still a small field. I’ve therefore frequently felt that my efforts, which might represent only modest contributions in more crowded legal spaces, palpably move the needle in this space, even this early in my legal career. Thus, I feel able to contribute quite a bit to efforts to keep people from stepping over those lines, which is a great motivator for me.

Animal Law Is Interesting.

Animal law presents a number of puzzles. As with many puzzles, I find them fun to solve. For example, some animal law cases present a question of whether an animal should have standing to sue or petition for certain rights. One cannot intelligibly answer that question without engaging in deep inquiries into what standing is for, what access to courts is for, what rights are for, and what traits are necessary or sufficient to grant each of those.

Similarly, most judicial opinions dealing with the question have categorized animals as “property” or “chattel” for legal purposes, but a good number of those explicitly express discomfort with that idea, even as they uphold it. As then-Texas Supreme Court Justice, now-Fifth Circuit Judge Don R. Willett memorably remarked, “Throughout the Lone Star State, canine companions are treated—and treasured—not as mere personal property but as beloved friends and confidants, even family members. . . . Even the gruffest among us tears up (every time) at the end of Old Yeller.” Strickland v. Medlen, 397 S.W.3d 184, 185 (Tex. 2013). Resolving this tension necessitates grappling with what property is, exactly, and how the law creates and assigns entities to legal categories.

What better way is there to learn about the law at a deep level than to engage with questions like that?

Animal Law Is Fun.

This last point is less about animal law itself and more about the amazing and thoughtful people who make up the field. As the field is so small, I’ve already been fortunate enough to cross paths with many animal lawyers at many levels. I’ve been absolutely thrilled to meet people who all chose this less-traveled path for one or another reason, which makes for a wonderfully vibrant community. From the members of Harvard’s Animal Law & Policy Program to the many colleagues I’ve met in classes or at speaker events, conferences, internships, and externships, I could not think of a better way to spend my time as a lawyer.

This is why I came to and continue to love the animal law field.