Each month, One Green Planet tracks major legal developments that are improving (or, in some cases, threatening) the lives and well-being of animals. This month, we are highlighting an Animal Outlook case—a battle to protect farm animals under state animal cruelty laws. Stay tuned at the end for three quick bonus updates: including, for a change of pace, an international law update describing a bold and (semi-successful) effort in Switzerland to recognize basic rights for non-human primates.

1. Case Highlight: Animal Outlook Secures Prosecution in PA

Usually, major legal victories come at the end of the case. A court will strike down a bad law or uphold a good one. Or, as seen on popular television, a defendant is convicted or acquitted. But this victory comes at the beginning of a case, with a court telling the District Attorney of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, to prosecute charges of animal cruelty that occurred at Martin Farms.

To convey how big this win is for animals, it’s necessary to first explain how weak farm-animal protections are in the United States. While most people (quite reasonably) assume that animal cruelty laws protect all animals, they typically do not extend to (1) animals used in research, and (2) animals on farms. (Unsurprisingly, this is the majority of animals in the U.S.)

In Pennsylvania, for example, animal cruelty laws exempt “normal agricultural operations” from prosecution. “Normal agricultural operations,” of course, are themselves cruel; they include practices such as confining animals in unclean spaces where the animals cannot stretch their legs or even turn around, and subjecting them to mutilation such as debeaking (cutting off the beaks of chickens)—all of which would be illegal in other contexts. And yet farms get away with cruelty that is (somehow) even worse than these norms. In practice, there is a tacit understanding that, however farmers treat animals, the government will not question their practices because farmers feed America.

For the first two years of Animal Outlook’s efforts to prosecute Martin Farms, it appeared this norm would win out, and that Animal Outlook would be unable to hold Martin Farms accountable for animal cruelty—no matter how egregious the cruelty was. When Animal Outlook provided undercover footage to the police and the District Attorney (“DA”), the DA refused to prosecute. In fact, when Animal Outlook petitioned the trial court to overturn the DA’s decision, even the trial court sided with the DA.

For those wondering, by now, what kind of cruelty happened at Martin Farms, and what kind of evidence Animal Outlook presented, the appellate court in Pennsylvania described it (in part) as follows:

[Animal Outlook documented] multiple instances of individuals improperly restraining calves, which were unanesthetized to save time and money, and then using inadequately hot equipment to slowly burn away the animals’ horns while they struggled, vocalized, and exhibited other signs of pain. . . . [Animal Outlook] also documented instances of cows who were unable to stand and walk (“downer cows”) being improperly pushed and dragged with a tractor bucket. . . . [The investigator] also witnessed incidents of gratuitous cruelty, not captured on video, such as punching and twisting the tails of cows until they vocalized, and excessively shocking animals with a prod in sensitive areas.

Moved by this footage, the Superior Court overturned the trial court. It directed the DA to accept and transmit Animal Outlook’s claims for prosecution.  

To date, the case has not been prosecuted. In fact, it may never be prosecuted successfully. So, why is this such a major win for animals?

I offer four reasons:

  1. This case removes a sense of invincibility from farming operations. It reminds factory farms that, while the law may give them too much leeway, they can still be held accountable and prosecuted as criminals for mistreating animals. With a realistic fear of prosecution, farms are more likely to self-police and at least prevent the most egregious forms of cruelty.
  2. It makes a strong, public statement. It reminds the government, and the public, that farm animals are deserving of protection, and that the government has a responsibility to prosecute cruelty to farm animals.
  3. It provides animal-rights organizations with a successful strategy for bringing cases on behalf of animals. Often, it is difficult for non-profit organizations to bring private lawsuits because of a concept called standing, which I discuss here; but as this case shows, in certain instances, a private organization can wield the power of the government. In fact, this is the second recent case where Animal Outlook has successfully engaged the government to protect animal interests. (The first was a case under the False Claims Act, which challenged cruel practices at a lamb-slaughter facility.)
  4. It forces farms to state, publicly and in court, the kinds of practices that it considers “normal.” Why? Because only “abnormal” practices can be prosecuted. The sad truth is that even the most heinous practices like the ones at Martin Farms are more common than not.  But most farmers don’t want to admit that. So, prosecuting farms puts them between and rock and a hard place: it forces them to either (1) suffer criminal consequences for cruel practices, or (2) defend their practices as normal, exposing just how cruel “normal” practices are.

2. Bonus Updates

A. A Plant-Based Food Program for Inmates?

One of the most important ways to protect animals is to change the demand for animal products. So victories for vegan foods are often the most important victories for animals. To that end, Maryland is now considering a bill that would offer plant-based meal and beverage options to all inmates at least once a week, and that would offer these options to any inmate at any meal upon request. Because limited, government-run programs such as prisons and schools can serve as microcosms for implementing change, plant-based food programs in prisons could help bring veganism more into the mainstream.

B. A Major Victory for Gray Wolves

For decades, animal-rights and environmental groups have been fighting to protect gray wolves under the Endangered Species Act. Since gray wolves were first protected as endangered in the 1960s and 1970s, the government has repeatedly taken steps to de-list them. Defenders of Wildlife, NRDC, and WildEarth Guardians have successfully challenged the government’s most recent de-listing policy in a California federal court.

One especially important aspect of the Court’s ruling was that the government cannot take “backdoor routes” to de-list protected species. In this instance, the government tried to break “gray wolves” up into sub-groups and argue that the smaller sub-groups did not warrant protections. By rejecting the government’s efforts, the court provided some security for all listed species.

C. Battles for Animal Rights in Switzerland

Sentience, a Swiss animal-rights organization, has promoted a bold and (semi-successful) effort in Switzerland to recognize basic rights for non-human primates. After a three-year legal dispute, the  Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled that the proposition was legally valid, marking a large victory for animal rights. Unfortunately, the Court ruled that such rights would apply only against the government, not against private persons and organizations; and, after putting the proposition to a vote in the canton (state) of Basel-Stadt, 75% of the state population rejected the proposition. To learn more about this initiative, check out the most recent episode of the Animal Law Podcast with Charlotte Blattner.

For previous Animal Law Updates on One Green Planet:

Be sure to also check out the Brooks Animal Law Digest, an amazing resource with weekly animal-law updates.

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