Animal law continues to be a hot topic in the legal profession. In 2001, there were only nine animal law courses in the country. The number is now well over a hundred, and several law schools offer multiple animal law courses. Many law schools also have active chapters of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.
So what, exactly, is animal law? Well, it’s a complex mishmash of federal and state statutes, city and county ordinances, and judicial decisions where traditional principles of contract law, tort law, divorce law, property law and probate law have been brought to bear on situations involving animals.
At the federal level, statutes include the Animal Welfare Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Humane Slaughter Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
At the state level, all states have statutes making animal cruelty and neglect a criminal offense. And almost all states have statutes prohibiting animal fighting, which, in times past, has been an intensely debated political and cultural issue. (History has it that Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, was asked to champion a law prohibiting cockfighting, which he declined to do. “Since humans continue to fight,” he said, “who am I to deny chickens an equal right?”)
Colorado has a comprehensive law known as the Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act that regulates breeders, animal shelters and others. In 2021, the General Assembly passed the Pet Store Consumer Protection Act, which, among other things, requires pet stores to disclose information about the breeders from which they obtain their inventory.
At the local level — cities and counties — there are all kinds of laws governing the behavior of animals as well as the behavior of animal owners. Colorado Springs, for example, prohibits the sale of animals along roadsides, at flea markets and in parking lots.
As for judge-made law, divorce courts and probate courts are regularly called upon to decide who gets possession of a family pet. And the prosecution of animal cruelty cases is all too common.
There are numerous cutting-edge issues bubbling up out of the cauldron of animal law. The law in most states (including Colorado) considers animals the equivalent of tangible personal property — tables, chairs, rugs, cars. Therefore, divorce courts don’t have authority to order shared custody or the payment of pet support. And, because the law considers animals merely property, their loss at the hands of a careless driver or malpracticing veterinarian leads to damage awards limited to the market value of the animal.
Animal rights advocates continue to push for laws that will give companion animals a status more approaching that of children. Along those lines, back in 2003, a bill was introduced in the Colorado Legislature that, if passed, would have allowed non-economic injury damages (loss of companionship) for the wrongful death of a pet. The bill did not pass.
In Europe, efforts have been made to give certain primates — notably chimpanzees — human-type rights, such as the right to life and freedom from torture.