The animal rights movement and the recent emergence of animal law in the United States are reflections of dramatic changes in the social ethic toward animals, according to Dr. John A. Shadduck.
During the educational portion of the AVMA Annual Convention, Dr. Shadduck presented a paper co-authored with philosopher Bernard Rollin, PhD, about the legal profession's impact on animal rights in this country. A professor of philosophy at Colorado State University, Dr. Rollin has written and lectured extensively on animal rights.
Also that morning, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, the only veterinarian in the English Parliament, explained that society's responsibilities to animals are at the heart of his nation's animal welfare laws.
The U.K. perspective
Soulsby is a member of the House of Lords and sits on its Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures. He and Dr. Shadduck offered an overview of how their respective countries are addressing the increasingly contentious question about the proper relationship between society and animals.
The animal rights movement in the United Kingdom is similar in many ways to the U.S. movement, Soulsby explained. Although vocal and sometimes violent, activists have been unsuccessful in their efforts for parliament to grant rights to animals.
"The question of animal rights—keenly addressed by various organizations, especially those antagonistic to the use of animals—has not been a consideration of legislation in the U.K.," Soulsby said.
Society accepts animal research when the goal is to advance the knowledge, detection, treatment, and prevention of diseases in people and animals. The House of Lords reaffirmed these ideals this past year, Soulsby added.
Nevertheless, the United Kingdom has been a leader in the development of laws providing for the welfare of animals used in research, Soulsby said.
Although the notion of legal rights for animals has not been embraced in parliament, there is a widespread acceptance that society is obliged to promote animal welfare. This began in 1876 with the Cruelty to Animals Act.
Animal experimentation is currently regulated by the Animal Scientific Procedures Act, passed in 1986. The law, Soulsby said, is arguably one of the strictest pieces of legislation governing animal experimentation.
While allowing animal experimentation, the law nevertheless strives to prevent animal pain and suffering. The law established the Ethical Review Panel, which must approve all research proposals involving animals.
Soulsby explained that researchers must demonstrate that the benefits of the proposed study exceed the costs to animal welfare.
Additionally, he noted that parliament has recently approved creation of a national center promoting the three Rs of animal experimentation: reduction, replacement, and refinement.
As more is learned about animals and their needs, Soulsby said the nation's animal welfare laws must be revised to reflect what is known.
The U.S. perspective
Today in the United States, society values animals more for what they are than for what they provide, according to Dr. Shadduck. Moreover, people are less willing to regard animals as mere property, with some going as far as advocating that the same rights enjoyed by humans be afforded to animals.
This dramatic evolution in societal ethics is based on the emotional interdependence between animals and humans, and the positive effects of animals on human health, explained Dr. Shadduck, a former dean of the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Society has long held strong aversions to the willful torture and purposeless maiming of animals. Anticruelty statutes have existed since the 1800s, and for many years, people have held that as long as an animal was not treated cruelly, its rights had not been violated, Dr. Shadduck stated.
Yet, expectations today have supplanted the traditional anticruelty ethic with an ethic that demands animals be treated in accordance with their particular natures. As a result, animals used for research are the most regulated, supervised, and monitored animals in the country.
Dr. Shadduck identified several reasons for this change: society became more urbanized and less agrarian; there was a nearly 50-year period of ethical soul-searching over the disenfranchisement of women and minorities; the media discovered that people respond to animals; and philosophers, scientists, and celebrities have publicly argued for improvements in animals' lives.
Most important, after World War II, the nation shifted from family farms to factory farming, and animal research and testing increased dramatically. "In the modern world of agriculture and animal research," Dr. Shadduck said, "the traditional anticruelty ethic grows increasingly less applicable.
"Society has taken elements of the moral categories it uses for assessing the treatment of people and is in the process of modifying these concepts to make them appropriate for dealing with new issues in the treatment of animals, especially their use in science and confinement agriculture."
Research procedures that were common just a few years ago are not only banned but also condemned, Dr. Shadduck said. Although the public expressed its concerns clearly and frequently, neither the veterinary profession nor the research community was quick to respond.
Dr. Shadduck explained the reason for veterinarians' ambivalence this way: when the interests of an animal conflict with those of a person, whose side is the veterinarian on?
Additionally, veterinarians make the mistake of thinking that the rhetoric and all too frequently destructive behaviors of animal rights activists are occurring in a social vacuum and are inspired by self-interest.
While this self-interest is often a major factor, Dr. Shadduck said, "We must recognize that fringe groups are just that—on the fringes of much larger, rational, logical, and important social movements."
To focus on a few animal rights extremists is to miss the main goal of the movement, which is to constrain the use of animals, not abolish animal use altogether, he added.
All this has not gone unnoticed by the legal profession. At least six state bar associations and the District of Columbia's have animal law sections, 28 law schools offer animal law courses, and 43 law schools have student legal defense groups, according to Dr. Shadduck.
He said lawyers are increasingly interested in animal law, seeing it both as a new area of exploration and, perhaps, an expansion of legal concepts, and, of course, as a potentially lucrative source of professional fees. Others are motivated by personal views of animals and their rights.
It is also clear that, to some extent, the courts are "laboratories" where legal arguments and concepts about animal law can be refined and explored.
Notably, legislation pertaining to animal welfare or rights couldn't be found in Congress 40 years ago. But during the past seven years, up to 60 animal welfare bills were introduced annually, with even more at the state level.
Regardless of one's views of the animal rights movement, the issues it is addressing are here to stay. The social ethic toward animals is changing, and the ensuing expectations will drive changes, regardless of whether the veterinary profession is ready.
"Either veterinarians participate thoughtfully and effectively, or we become passive bystanders to our own futures," Dr. Shadduck said. "The very core of our profession is at stake."