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Pot-bellied pigs in Lisbon Zoo. Wikimedia commons

Bias, politics and protests: how human laws constrain and sometimes liberate animals

Guilty Pigs traverses the world of nonhuman animals – and their human owners, guardians, and policy makers – as they brush up against the law in a myriad diverse ways. The book is not jurisdictionally specific, nor is it temporally bound. It is startling in its breadth.

The authors, Katy Barnett and Jeremy Gans, are both based in Australia. As such, Guilty Pigs features a generalised tilt towards English speaking countries that inherited and built upon the British legal tradition. Yet the authors’ discussion of animals and the law is impressive in its historical and geographical diversity. From biblical times, to the Australian colonies, to European Union policy and back again, this book touches on it all.

Review: Guilty Pigs: The Weird and Wonderful History of Animal Law - Katy Barnett and Jeremy Gans (Black Inc.)

Explicitly intended for a broad, educated audience, Guilty Pigs is written in accessible language, pausing from time to time to offer the reader a brief yet illuminating introduction to key legal principles.

The authors have also made an explicit decision to not use detailed footnotes. Rather, they ensure that the book flows. Those who want to undertake additional research can consult the sizeable list of sources at the end.

This approach means that Guilty Pigs, which opens with a chapter on “Owning Animals” and closes with “Protecting Animals”, is a pleasure to read. The audience is guaranteed to learn a lot, without becoming bogged down in black-letter law or overly abstracted legal theory.

The book also features a small but impressive number of images. All in black and white, they include The Day of the Tentacle – an octopus “selfie” – which is used to segue into a discussion about animals, copyright law and the legal ownership of selfies, including the case of a macaque monkey that was found not to have copyright over the photographs it had taken of itself.

One of the important things the book establishes is that there is almost no aspect of the law that does not apply to animals in some way. That includes family law, the laws governing inheritance, and the rules associated with property searches. Animals are implicated at seemingly every turn.

The Day of the Tentacle. Wikimedia commons

Read more: People hate cruelty to animals, so why do we do it?

More than a “pet project”

The authors both harboured a desire to write about animals and the law long before work on the book commenced. Indeed, they note that it took some time to find a publisher willing to take on such a seemingly vanguard (or perhaps simply unusual) subject:

Conversation then turned to other animal cases we knew about, and because we both have very broad legal interests, there were many. […] we put together a pitch. One of Katy’s former students approached a publisher he had worked for, but the publisher was not interested in the book at all.

The authors were “crestfallen”. I know the feeling all too well. As a political scientist interested in animals and public policy, I have experienced the sting of indignation that comes with my academic research being dismissed as a “pet project” – pun intended – and not the domain of serious academic scholarship.

In this case, “serious” means “important”, or more specifically, “human focused”. In research undertaken with my colleagues Yvette Watt and Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, we surveyed animal studies scholars to find out if they feel their interest in animals “creates challenges for an academic career”: 44% said it does, a further 7% claimed it “jeopardised” their career.

A common means of diminishing animal-focused research is to claim that the author is merely an animal-rights advocate seeking to push a particular barrow. This is intended to stand in contrast to everybody else who is, presumably, ideologically neutral.

This is, in my view, a load of academic nonsense, most likely born of snobbery. As such, I must admit to a certain disappointment upon reading the following in Guilty Pigs:

It turns out that there are not many other books looking at how the law engages with animals as a matter of reality and history – books in this area tend to be written from an animal rights perspective, considering how the law should engage with animals to protect their rights. While we do consider this line of thought, along with the legal protection of animals and the ways that humans harm animals, that is not the sole focus of this book.

To me, this represents a missed opportunity. To eschew a swathe of scholarship in the fields of law, political science and much more beyond on the basis that animal studies scholars are writing from an “animal rights perspective” is akin to taking the position that human rights theorists are intellectually suspect if they express an intellectual opposition to the use of torture.

Who among us undertakes academic research to make the world a worse, more harmful or bigoted place? I would like to think very few.

It is reasonable to assume that a sizeable proportion of scholars who have dedicated themselves to the study of animals and the law, or animals and policy, are indeed in favour of animal protection, broadly construed. That connection is hardly a reason to approach peer-reviewed academic scholarship with suspicion.

In the same survey mentioned above, my colleagues and I asked animal studies scholars what level of recognition they receive for their animal-focused scholarship. The largest proportion (37%) said that recognition comes from outside their university. More concerning was the fact that 16% reported they receive no recognition at all. The attitude of Barnette and Gans risks entrenching those feelings of marginalisation.

Read more: Hidden women of history: Frances Levvy, Australia's quietly radical early animal rights campaigner

Recovering old ground

If the authors of Guilty Pigs decide to continue publishing in the field of animals and the law, I would encourage them to think more fully about consulting the existing literature. They may be pleasantly surprised. They are likely to find that many of the concepts they work through in the book have already been subjected to rigourous academic consideration.

Robert Garner, for example, has undertaken a detailed comparative analysis of US and UK animal welfare laws. Peter Sankoff, Steven White and Celeste Black have published two editions of Animal Law in Australasia (2009, 2013), while Peter John Chen’s Animal Welfare in Australia: politics and policy (2016) is another great resource, which may have helped Barnett and Gans with some of their intellectual backstory, freeing them up to move the conversation forward even more than they have done in Guilty Pigs.

I could go on to mention Jed Goodfellow, Deborah Cao, Joe Wills, and many, many more.

In my own work Animals, Equality and Democracy (2011), I have done a lot of theorising about how we have, how we do, and how we might categorise animals for legal and political purposes. As I read Guilty Pigs, I had a persistent sense that the authors were working extremely hard to recover old ground.

I also wrote at length about pit ponies, which were used to haul coal from mines from the 18th to the early 20th century, their plight becoming a rallying cause for animal rights activists. To my mind, they are one of the most interesting examples of how animals, the law, human bias and politics intersect. I think Barnett and Gans might find something of interest in the plight of pit ponies. But then again, perhaps I am now simply displaying my own particular, personal bias!

Activism and the law

Elsewhere, I have argued, along with co-author Clare McCausland, that if you know what a battery cage looks like – and sales of cage-free eggs suggest many people do – then you should thank an animal advocate.

Egg production occurs exclusively on private property, inside windowless sheds. Egg growers have no incentive to make the conditions under which battery hens live visible to the community. That work – seemingly important public policy work – is undertaken by animal advocates.

Interestingly, Guilty Pigs does not deal with the battery cage to any great extent, despite it being at the centre of trespass legal action, as well as perhaps the most famous animal-related legal case – the so-called “McLibel” case brought by McDonald’s in 1997 against a small group of environmental activists.

Despite my criticisms, the authors do include some legal cases driven by people who would be popularly considered animal-rights activists.

For example, the case of Arna the elephant is discussed in chapter six. Arna was kept as a lone circus elephant for many years, despite the well understood social nature of female Asiatic elephants. That case, Pearson v Janlin Circuses Pty Ltd (2002), was initiated by Mark Pearson, former president of Animal Liberation NSW, and more recently NSW MLC for the Animal Justice Party.

I happened to be at the circus protest on the day in 2000 that became the subject of the legal proceedings discussed in Guilty Pigs. I was there because I had been influenced by Peter Singer and his book Animal Liberation (1975), in which he asks us to take the interests of animals seriously when assessing the moral appropriateness of an action that impacts their lives.

Philosopher Peter Singer, author of the influential book Animal Liberation (1975) Joel Travis Sage

It is my view that humans can entertain ourselves in myriad ways. Permanently confining a large animal because it will provide a family with an afternoon of entertainment is not morally justifiable.

I find long-term confinement even more objectionable when the animal is a female elephant because, as I understand it, female elephants are social animals and when they are not under human domination they choose to live in social groups.

What I observed that day – from my lay perspective – was an extremely agitated elephant who appeared to want to follow three other female elephants when they were loaded onto a transport truck. The three other elephants had, it is my understanding, been brought to be with Arna on that particular day to disrupt the optics of the highly publicised protest for “Arna the solitary elephant”.

Arna stamped her feet and trumpeted, while her three temporary cage mates were loaded onto a waiting lorry. I nervously glanced around trying to identify the safest escape route were Arna to charge. I closely followed the subsequent court case with great interest.

Indeed, I remained engaged with Arna’s life, from a safe distance. She was eventually donated by the circus to Western Plain Zoo in Dubbo, after she trampled her handler to death in December 2007. She died in 2012.

Asian elephants in Taronga Western Plains Zoo. Wikimedia commons

If Barnett and Gans had stuck to their opening proposition of eschewing cases centred around “how the law should engage with animals”, the Arna case might have been excluded. Thankfully, it was not.

My central point is that there is a world of bright, well-educated, highly innovative scholars out there studying animals and the law. Many of them do so because they have a keen interest in animals, usually not in harming animals. More often, they are interested in protecting animals from harm.

So long as those scholars produce work that can withstand rigorous peer review, their work should be viewed as a solid foundation upon which all scholars who engage with animals and the law can build.

Animal law is a growing field of higher education teaching, with courses increasingly offered by law schools throughout the English-speaking world, and perhaps beyond. As such, I anticipate a big readership for this book.

The authors’ eclectic approach to animals and the law may make it challenging for those teaching an animal law course at university level to easily identify a suitable reading that maps easily onto a weekly curriculum. That said, it is no doubt possible to do so.

But perhaps the gift of Guilty Pigs is that is can be used to excite readers about animals and the law broadly construed. Either way, it is a valuable contribution to the field. I recommend the book as an accessible work full of fascinating insights into the lives of animals and the laws that constrain them, liberate them, and much in between.

Correction: an earlier version of this article suggested Arna the elephant trampled her handler at Western Plains Zoo, when the incident occurred before she was transferred there.

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