Throughout civilization, nations have codified the basic and essential rights of their people—rights that must not be infringed upon by the government or other individuals or entities. In the United States, our Bill of Rights enumerates cherished essential rights including freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly.
However, as far as the law is concerned, the situation for animals in this country is dire. Despite the fact that they are living, feeling beings, animals in the U.S. are still considered merely “property” by law—in most cases no different than a table or a chair. When laws protecting animals do exist, they are often insufficient or full of loopholes. The federal Animal Welfare Act explicitly excludes birds, rats and mice—which account for the vast majority of animals used in laboratories. And there are no federal laws at all protecting the billions of animals raised for food from the most egregious abuses.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Animal Bill of Rights is a petition to the United States Congress, stating the basic, inalienable rights that all sentient beings have—and that our government should protect.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Proposed Animal Bill of Rights
I. The right of animals to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect, and abuse.
Originally drafted in 1966 to regulate the care of animals used in laboratories, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) remains the only federal law that regulates the treatment of animals, but only those used in Commerce, specifically: in research, for exhibition, during transport, and animals for sale by dealers and breeders.
However, the Act’s narrow definition of “animal” limits its effectiveness, since it always excluded cold-blooded animals, farm animals, and horses not used in research. Then, in 2002, Congress moved to amend the AWA to exclude birds, rats, and mice from the Act’s protections following successful litigation against the government by the Animal Legal Defense Fund that would have required the Act to be interpreted to include them. Together these 3 species excluded from the Act’s protections are estimated to comprise over 90 percent of all animals used in research.
Even those animals who are covered by the AWA lack true protection because of inadequate resources for enforcement of the Act by the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (USCA/APHIS), which is the agency charged with enforcing the Act.
Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131–2159
II. The right of laboratory animals not to be used in cruel or unnecessary experiments.
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) requires research laboratories to report the number of animals used in experiments and authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to “promulgate standards to govern the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals” by research facilities, mandating that these standards include requirements for “practices in experimental procedures to ensure that animal pain and distress are minimized.” Research facilities are required by the Act to have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee to oversee the care and treatment of research animals and report concerns. However, these Committees have no authority or mechanism to affect or intervene in ongoing experiments despite their concerns.
Although neither the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) nor the US Consumer Product Safety Commission require that household or cosmetic products be tested on animals, no laws exist to limit or regulate the practice of those who choose to conduct product testing on animals. The FDA does mandate that all new drugs be tested on animals, even where no link exists between the particular experiment and human consumption standards.
Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131—2159
III. The right of companion animals to a healthy diet, protective shelter and adequate medical care.
There are no federal laws to protect companion animals from abuse or neglect, and the lack of uniform standards has resulted in wide discrepancies in animal cruelty provisions across state lines. Currently, 45 states and the District of Columbia have some kind of felony level animal cruelty provision, usually for aggravated cruelty or animal fighting or both. The remaining 5 states treat such crimes as mere misdemeanors. For example, in Louisiana aggravated cruelty leading to the death of an animal can lead to a fine of $25,000 and/or imprisonment for up to 10 years, while similar conduct in Mississippi would merely lead to, at most, a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 6 months.
Some states, like Maryland and Montana, explicitly criminalize a failure to provide an animal in one’s care with adequate food, water, veterinary care, and shelter. Other states cover these violations under vague neglect laws with no clear definitions nor minimum standards of care outlined, leaving their interpretation to the whims of law enforcement officials who may be untrained in animal care standards.
IV. The right of wildlife to a natural habitat, ecologically sufficient to a normal existence and self-sustaining population.
The federal government enjoys wide latitude when it comes to protecting or destroying wildlife and its habitat. The Endangered Species Act of 1973 is designed to protect critically imperiled species and their habitats and provides varying degrees of penalties for their capture, injury, or destruction. However, the determinations of which species may be classified as “endangered” is left to the Department of Interior, which is directed by the President and has proven at times to be subject to the politics of the office and the times.
Similarly the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the destruction, capture or harassment of any marine mammal, but makes numerous exceptions, such as to support commercial fishing practices.
The Animal Damage Control Act permits the Secretary of Agriculture to control “nuisance” mammals and birds and injurious animal species by taking any action considered necessary in conducting the program. Past eradication programs include hunting wolves by airplane and conducting goose hunts in state parks, as well as sponsoring widespread deer, bear or coyote hunts open to the public all in the name of controlling animal populations deemed damaging to other species.
Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531–1544
Marine Mammal Protection Act, 16 U.S.C. 1361—1423
Animal Damage Control Act, 7 U.S.C. 426
V. The right of farmed animals to an environment that satisfies their basic physical and psychological needs.
Excluded by most state animal cruelty laws and the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), farm animals are particularly at risk for large-scale exploitation and abuse since the advent of factory farms, which mechanized and exponentially expanded the production of animal products at the price of humane animal care.
The Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act (HMLSA) is similarly limited. Originally passed in 1958, the Act requires that livestock must be stunned into unconsciousness prior to slaughter. This is usually accomplished through electrocution when dealing with swine, and captive bolt stunning for cattle, goats, and sheep. The Act excludes poultry, rabbits, fish and other animals routinely raised for human consumption. Unfortunately, enforcement of this Act has been inconsistent, and animal welfare organizations continue to uncover and expose pervasive and horrific violations of it.
Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131—2159
Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 1901–1907
VI. The right of animals to have their interest represented in court and safeguarded by the law of the land.
America’s laws consider animals as property no different than a car or a chair; as such they are not recognized as having independent legal rights or “interests.” Their status as property limits the legal protections available to animals and continues to make possible their exploitation for economic gain. While some animal law scholars have suggested that animals be afforded a unique status beyond that of inanimate objects, legislatures are generally reluctant to define animals as anything but property.
Because animals are not recognized as having legitimate legal rights, such as the right to be free from torture, laws meant to protect them have no means to allow her advocate to come in to court to assert those protections on her behalf. In many cases the agency authorized to look out for and enforce those protections is the same agency that spends the majority of its time and resources working with industries who exploit animals, such as factory farm corporations. No federal agency exists solely to safeguard the interest of animals.