Animal law in the Australian context

Animals play a vital role in our society – domestically, commercially and recreationally. Even so, many Australians are not aware that the treatment of animals under the law often fails to safeguard their most basic interests.

This article provides a brief overview of Animal Law, examines why it is important and introduces the Animal Law Collective. It begins by discussing cultural attitudes towards animals, and explores the widely held belief that the law does, or should, afford some protection to animals in Australia. The article briefly discusses the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) and the practical impact of the exclusions therein for the lived experience of the vast majority of animals in Australia. It then considers the recent surge of interest and activity in the area of Animal Law worldwide, noting that Australian educational institutions, by comparison, have been excessively slow to offer courses concerning human-animal studies.  Finally, the article discusses various national Animal Law groups, such as Voiceless and Barristers Animal Welfare Panel, and considers their work as advocates for the reformation of Animal Law.

The rights, welfare and protection of animals persist as one of the biggest social justice issues of our time. Ultimately, this article contends that the law can operate as a great vehicle for change, and has a significant role to play in helping to stop the institutionalised suffering of animals in Australia.

Attitudes Towards Animal Law in Australia

Most Australians would agree that the law should afford animals some degree of protection. The sight of animals suffering is intuitively uncomfortable for many people, and when it is brought to the fore in the media, swift public outcry normally ensues. Moreover, animals play such a vital role in our society – domestically, commercially, scientifically, and recreationally – that it would be unconscionable and impractical not to seek to secure their safety.

There exists, however, a striking discord between many people’s natural impulse towards the protection of animals’ interests, and the effect of animal protection legislation in Australia. Whereas the law recognises the innate value of human life, and seeks to endow rights and protections accordingly, the law does not recognise any inherent value in the lives of animals independent of their commercial value. Instead, the rights and protections that the law affords animals vary according to their commercial or domestic value (or lack thereof) to humans. This is borne out by the inconsistency of treatment across even a single species. For example, one dog may occupy different roles throughout her life: she may be a pet, a subject of scientific research, wild, or a racing dog. In each case, she will be afforded different protections, not on the basis of her needs, interests or vulnerability, but on the basis of how useful she is to humans in each instance.[1] Such inconsistencies arise out the perceived necessity of widespread commercial, scientific, and domestic use of animals, and a fundamental inability to classify nonhuman animals decisively as either property or as beings with some degree of personhood.[2]

A Statutory Perspective: The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic)

The uncertainty surrounding an appropriate moral classification for animals is evident in Australian animal protection legislation. In Victoria, the stated purposes of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 include the prevention of cruelty to animals and encourage “considerate treatment” of animals.[3]  Notwithstanding these admirable goals, the statute is rendered largely impotent in many instances by the existence of sweeping exemptions of “various practices or classes of animals from their cruelty offence provisions.”[4] Graeme McEwan, a member of the Victorian Bar and chair of the Barrister’s Animal Welfare Panel, notes that codes of practice established by the Act and equivalent statutes in other Australian jurisdictions are “no more that ‘window dressing’” by virtue of such exemptions.[5] For example, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) does not apply to “the slaughter of animals in accordance with the Meat Industry Act 1993 or any Commonwealth Act”.[6]  Other exclusions include: feral animals;[7] “the keeping, treatment, handling, transportation, sale, killing, hunting, shooting, catching, trapping, netting, marking, care, use, husbandry or management of any animal or class of animals (other than a farm animal or class of farm animals) which is carried out in accordance with a Code of Practice;”[8] and any fishing activities conducted in accordance with the Fisheries Act 1995 (Vic).[9] Because of these broad exemptions, it is effectively impossible for the Act to apply with any sort of consistency, fairness or “considerate treatment” to animals across Victoria.

In an attempt to address deficiencies in state legislative regimes, the federal Department of Agriculture has established the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy, which seeks to secure the welfare of animals consistently across Australia, having regard to international best practice, and placing an emphasis on securing international partnerships that privilege the welfare of animals.[10]  Nevertheless, as McEwan notes, animal welfare advocates may have cause to doubt the sincerity and efficacy of such a scheme, given that the Department of Agriculture is also primarily responsible for promoting the interests of agricultural producers.[11]

Deficiencies in state and federal animal protection law regimes suggest that protecting non-human animals is valued only to the extent that such protection does not encumber the commercial value to be extracted from them. Codes of practice and sweeping exemptions carved out of legislation purportedly designed to protect animals allow for a cost-benefit analysis to take place. They set out a scheme whereby the amount of benefit to be derived from the use of a non-human animal determines the amount of suffering that can acceptably be inflicted upon her.[12] Legislation designed to protect the interests of animals should not include such a cruel arithmetic.

The Growth of Human-Animal Studies World-Wide

Kenneth Shapiro and Margo DeMello have documented what they term a world wide ‘explosion’ in the field of human-animal studies (HAS) in the last decade.[13] Marked by global conferences, academic journals and university fellowships all devoted to the area, the expansion of HAS is undeniable. In many respects however, Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to HAS, not least in the area of law. Of the 14 universities listed on the Voiceless website for supposedly offering students an opportunity to study animal law as part of their JD or LLB[14], only seven were running an animal law unit in 2014.[15]  None were in Victoria and of those running, four were intensive subjects taught over ten days or fewer. At the University of Melbourne, ‘Animal Law’ was last taught in 2012 and appears to have been absorbed into the ‘Legal Research’ unit – which is not available in 2014. Other universities listed, such as the University of Sydney and Flinders University, appear to have ceased running the subject altogether. It is clear that animal law is not a priority for many law schools in Australia, despite rapidly escalating student interest in the field.

The Animal Law Collective

ALC-watermarkThe Animal Law Collective (ALC) is a non-profit organization established in 2013 by law students seeking to raise the profile of animal law in Australian universities and beyond. We are committed to the advancement of animal interests through legal education and legislative reform.

The ALC hopes to achieve these goals through a range of activities including: hosting lecture and debate forums,
the creation of a publication medium and the all-round promotion of animal law engagement. We demand a more humane and responsible legislative scheme, which both protects animals from maltreatment and actively promotes animal welfare. Student interest in animal law is an enormous and largely untapped resource in Australian universities. We hope to channel the intelligence and enthusiasm of Australia’s emerging young lawyers to work towards better welfare outcomes for animals.

The ALC provides a platform for a new generation of progressive voices who know that non-human animals deserve respect, dignity and genuine legal protection.


photo credit: Kate White www.said-jane.com/footprints/

the Animal Law Collective www.facebook.com/animallawcollective

  1. Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan, “Australasian Animal Protection Laws and the Challenger of Equal Consideration” in Peter Sankoff and Steven White (eds), Animal Law in Australia (The Federation Press, 2009) 108, 108 []
  2. Gary L. Francione, “Animals – Property or Persons” in CR Sunstein and MC Nussbaum (eds), Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions (Oxford University Press, 2004) 108, 115 []
  3. Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986 (Vic) s 1 []
  4. Graeme McEwan, Animal Law: Principles and Frontiers (Barrister’s Animal Welfare Panel, 2011) 1 []
  5. Ibid, 2 []
  6.  Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act  s 6(1)(a)   []
  7.  Ibid s 6(1)(d) []
  8. Ibid s 6(1)(b) []
  9.   Ibid s 6(1)(g) []
  10.  Department of Agriculture, Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (28 January 2014) Department of Agriculture []
  11.  McEwan, Animal Law, 3 []
  12.  O’Sullivan, above n 1, 111. []
  13.  Kenneth Shapiro and Margo DeMello, “The State of Human Animal Studies” (2010) 18 (3) Society & Animals Journal 1, 1 []
  14.  Voiceless, Study Animal Law (2012) Voiceless  []
  15.  UNSW offered ‘Animal Law’ as a summer intensive, University of Technology, Sydney offered ‘Animal Law and Policy in Australia’, Australian National University offered ‘Animals and the Law’ as a Special Law Elective, Bond University offered ‘Animal Law’ in semester two, Griffith University offered ‘Animal Law’ as a summer intensive, The University of Adelaide offered ‘Animals and the Law’ as a winter intensive and the University of Tasmania offered ‘Animal Law’ as a summer intensive. []