I decided to go to law school because I wanted an end to animal exploitation, and I had the idealistic belief that law plays the unique role in our society of legitimizing moral progress. Historically, the role of law in the fight for the expansion of rights for mistreated individuals and groups has been crucial. Once a moral principle is recognized by our legal system, its status is raised in terms of societal acceptance. So, does this work for animals? Particularly, does this work for the animals trapped in the most entrenched, powerful, and moneyed institutions of cruelty and deprivation – animals in the meat, milk and egg industries?
Here’s why and how we use the law to fight for farmed animals at Animal Outlook.
There are fewer laws protecting farmed animals than you think.
Caring people who first learn about these issues almost invariably begin with the same assumption: the government inspects these factory farms and slaughterhouses and weeds out the abuse, right? In reality, almost no farmed animals are subject to government inspection and cruelty is the standard in animal agriculture. In the U.S. at the federal level, there is no law protecting animals in agriculture from the time they are born or hatched until the time they are shipped off for slaughter.
The federal laws that do apply include the Twenty-Eight Hour Law, a transport law with meager penalties and applies only to “livestock” – defined to exclude birds. Although we have made progress with that law, it is still almost never enforced. There is also the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, which applies to federally inspected “livestock” slaughter. But this leaves, for most animals and most of the life cycle, protection only through laws at the state level.
State animal protection laws do include farmed animals, with some big caveats.
Every state has an animal cruelty law, and that law does apply to farmed animals. In the vast majority of states, these laws are exclusively criminal, without any private right of action for enforcement: only the relevant government agencies can enforce these laws; and they have nearly unfettered discretion to decide whether or not to pursue a case, regardless of its merits. In most states, there are exemptions for common or normal farming practices, which allows the industry to write its own rules.
Our undercover investigations regularly expose widespread systemic and egregious animal cruelty. It is incumbent upon us to take the industry to task, through the enforcement of these laws. Its business model exists only because of institutionalized animal cruelty. We are able to succeed despite the legal obstacles: our investigation of a Tyson facility led to 24 counts of animal cruelty including the first-ever conviction for an industry standard practice—inserting plastic rods into the nostrils of birds — which Tyson and most of the top poultry companies committed to ending following this.
Some of the best legal routes against institutional cruelty are laws intended to protect people.
While it’s important to target the widespread cruelty of the industry by maximizing the use of the few animal protective laws we have and limit the coverage of the standard practice exemptions, perhaps our most exciting work are lawsuits we bring using laws never intended to protect animals. The potential options here are limitless. We have found the best success where the harm to the human plaintiffs the law recognizes is closely connected to the harm to the animals, so the human’s injury can act as a stand-in for the animals’ mistreatment.
Examples here include lawsuits claiming false and misleading labeling of animal products, price-fixing done via a massive cow-killing campaign in the dairy industry and a federal False Claims Act case claiming improper sale of lamb meat to the U.S. government produced in violation of the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. We continue to file more legal actions of this type all the time, with numerous cases ongoing. I do not see an end in sight to ideas that have real potential for institutional change.
So, does the law protect farmed animals?
The answer is yes, with the right kind of advocacy. Our legal system has within it the power to advance our society forward for animals. The ingredients for moral advancement for animals are already baked into our laws, both in terms of existing laws and the creation of new law and policy. Animal Outlook’s Legal Advocacy Program continues to make real systemic impact through the law. Our victories against the systemic cruelty of factory farming are heartening, but the most important functions of our legal actions are bigger than any one case alone: we break new ground by using existing laws in creative ways to address the animals’ interests.
We are building replicable models for other innovative advocates and lawyers to build upon and expand. And we are using the law as a tool to advance moral progress. As we tell the stories of the animals using the language and the legitimacy of law, we are dismantling the exploitative system of factory farming piece by piece.
Your support can help us use the legal system as a tool to fight the systemic injustices of factory farming. Your donation will help our legal team to strategically challenge the status quo of animal agribusiness and to animal abusers accountable.
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As Executive Director of Animal Outlook, a national nonprofit animal protection organization, Cheryl is responsible for development and oversight of investigations, litigation and policy, and effecting mainstream corporate and cultural change to shift away from animal products and reduce the suffering of farmed animals.
Cheryl and her work have been featured in media outlets including NPR, The Washington Post and many others. She is a regular speaker at law schools and conferences.
Cheryl received a J.D. from UCLA School of Law and a B.A. from the University of Chicago in Environmental Studies. She is a member of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and California bars and is based in Los Angeles.