Animal Protection Laws: Protection for Whom?

I recently read an article about a Belgian man, Wim Delvoye, who tattoos live pigs in China as an “art” form. After completing his tattoos, he has each pig killed, and displays the pig’s skin as art. Additionally, some skins are sold to private buyers, just as painting might be. This operation is based in China, so is obviously not subject to American law. But it is interesting to imagine what would happen if it were.


Delvoye claims the pigs he uses are sedated during tattooing and suffer no trauma. In fact, he says, the pigs suffer less than they would on a factory farm. Assuming we accept his claims, the pigs’ skins are used for human entertainment and profit, but the pigs experience no physical or psychological trauma.


For those of us concerned with animals’ rights, this is a difficult situation to analyze without exploring the underlying purpose of animal protection legislation. While it is easy to give lip service to animal protection laws being in place to “protect animal”, it is difficult to define the meaning of the term “protect”.  Is it to ensure that animals live in relative comfort (no material, avoidable suffering), or is it to prevent all exploitation of animals?  


Surprisingly, many U.S. animal protection laws seem to be rooted in neither a primary goal of protecting animals from suffering, nor a primary goal of protecting them from exploitation. Rather, they aim to control human behavior for the sake of preserving morality and decency; avoiding offense to others. In other words, they are arguably more for the sake of humans than their purported subjects! Twenty-one states enshrine at least animal protection statutes in legal chapters titled “Disorderly Conduct,” “Offenses Against Public Order,” “Crimes Against the Public Morals,” “Crimes Against Public Health, Conduct and Sensibilities” and so on. It seems we suffer from confusion about who our animal protection laws are meant to serve.


Furthermore, many of our animal protection laws are constructed not around animals’ needs, but with an eye to how animals can advance human interests. Rather than assessing the evolutionarily-rooted needs and desires of individual species (birds crave flight; fish want to swim), then applying these needs to individual animals, we examine each animal we encounter from the perspective of how his owner intends to use him. Depending on the function the animal serves, we assign him to a category of other individual animals serving that same function (meat production; biomedical experiments; human companionship; fur production; circus entertainment, etc.). We then give each category a set of corresponding rights. This system allows us to declare, for example, that animals in fur farms have no legal right to protection from inclement weather because their purpose to humans is in making fiber, whereas companion animals (generally dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters, guinea pigs and birds) possess a legal right to protection from inclement weather because their purpose to humans is one of companionship.


Our short-sightedness is quickly revealed when we are confronted with an overlapping category, such as a duck (normally classified as either a “wild” animal or a “food” animal) kept as a companion animal. Under many states’ animal cruelty laws, a duck used by a human being for companionship is entitled to legal protection, while a duck used for food in a factory farm is not. In fact, successful state animal cruelty convictions have involved animals of a species that is often used for food (such as chickens, sheep and ducks) who were abused while kept as a “companion,” making them eligible for legal protection. Thus, what the law giveth with one hand, it taketh away with the other. In many cases, an animal’s fate is sealed by the role it is expected to play vis a vis humans.


Clearly, our animal protection laws are schizophrenic in their reasoning and application. This is because we allow them to reflect what we expect animals to do for us rather than what we are willing to do for them. Perhaps it is time to rewrite our laws and see where this takes us.


-Suzanne McMillan

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