University of Helsinki: Pandemics and health crises illustrate the importance of research in animal law

Animal law research is looking for solutions for the realisation of animal welfare and rights. Research in the field is also linked with other burning questions besides animal rights in particular, enabling it to contribute to providing solutions to, for example, sustainability problems.

“Animal law is also interlinked with broader environmental problems and health crises, such as pandemics. The connections of animal production to both are fairly evident.”

This is the view of Associate Professor Visa Kurki, who is a member of the ANIWERE (Animals Under a Welfarist Regime) research group at the Faculty of Law. The other members of the group are Doctoral Researchers Tero Kivinen, Veera Koponen, Veerle Platvoet and Marina Baptista Rosa. In addition, the group includes two visiting scholars and a research assistant.

Composed of junior researchers, the research group has grown since its inception in terms of both membership and activity – in that sense, it reflects the overall development of animal law. The fact that the scholarship is still looking for its place makes it particularly attractive to researchers.

“It’s an interesting field, since there is so much unexplored in animal law. Working in this field is not limited to commenting in the margins on what other people have previously written,” Kurki says.

What is the legal status of animals?
When talking about animal law, separating it as scholarship from animal rights activism is a good starting point. The protection of animals and animal rights are, of course, part of animal law, but animal law considers more broadly the regulation of co-existence between humans and animals.

The idea for a research group focused on animal law came from Kivinen and Kurki. They felt that the general principles of the field had not yet been sufficiently thoroughly investigated.

“In fact, animal law has been a topic of fairly extensive writing for quite some time, but a lot of it has been taken for granted, without problematising certain issues. Our aim is to open up key concepts,” says Tero Kivinen on the group’s research goals.

The project focuses on investigating the current model of animal law dominating Western legal systems, termed the ‘welfarist regime of animal law’. In the welfarist regime, animals are treated as property, while being protected from unnecessary suffering. Rearing animals for food or using them in research are not prohibited, but regulated. The project aims to produce a legal theory on the key features of the welfarist regime.

The 19th century, when the first laws on animal welfare were enacted in Western countries, can be considered the beginning of modern animal law. The purpose of this legislation was to intervene in animal abuse. After tackling the most glaring violations, legislation has gradually progressed in a direction where the goal is to provide animals with sufficient welfare. However, the practical implementation is often poor.

What may be the legally most interesting trend in recent years has been the consideration of whether animals can be granted legal personhood or the status of legal subject, in which case they would have actual legal rights. In his research, Visa Kurki has examined precisely this question, as well as questions of legal personhood more broadly. Kurki suggests that, in a limited sense, animals can already be perceived as legal subjects, which means that they may have legal rights. There has also been discussion on the fundamental rights of animals both in Finland and internationally: for instance, in Argentina a chimpanzee named Cecilia was granted habeas corpus rights as a result of a legal case.

The counterpart to welfarist thinking has been the abolitionist theory of animal law, according to which the idea of animals as human property should be abolished. This theory posits that the problems associated with abuse stem from our view of animals as property. Consequently, the rules establishing the better treatment of animals are misleading, as they justify the treatment of animals as property.

Gary Francione, the founder of the abolitionist approach, is one of the keynote speakers at the Theory of Animal Law conference organised by ANIWERE in Helsinki on 17 and 18 June 2022. In addition to Francione, speakers at the conference include David Favre and Saskia Stucki, who are also among the best-known names in the field.

A strong theoretical approach also characterises the conference organised by the group, whose list of speakers is composed exclusively of researchers.

Superficial legal reform in Finland
Questions of animal law are also topical due to upcoming changes to Finnish legislation. The aim is to reform the Animal Welfare Act from 1996, and the Finnish government is expected to submit its proposal for the new act to the Finnish parliament by the end of August 2022.

However, while this is a comprehensive reform that has been worked on for a long time, the group believes it will fall flat thanks to a slew of exceptions and long transition periods.

“The changes are marginal. I call the government proposal into question particularly from the perspective that animal welfare legislation is so rarely reformed, and the act implemented now can have an impact on the use of animals for decades to come,” says Veera Koponen, who focuses in her research on the general principles of Finnish animal welfare law.

In the worst-case scenario, the act will be already outdated when it enters into force.

“At the European level, there are upcoming changes, for example, in the case of the ban on cage farming. Also at the European level, a citizens’ initiative to ban fur farming is ongoing. These issues have not been taken into consideration almost at all in the government proposal, nor are we prepared for the possibility of more ambitious regulation by the EU.”

Changes at the global level are also possible, as the idea of solving global problems through international agreements has recently received a boost. Pandemics and environmental problems have made the ground fertile for such change.

In the global perspective, Europe is considered the most progressive region in terms of animal rights, but Tero Kivinen, who is familiar from his research with the rhetoric of international animal rights activism, points out that steering the attempts to improve the status of animals too emphatically from the West also involves risks.

“There is a slight risk of cultural imperialism. For example, whaling is associated with significant cultural aspects and those relating to the rights of indigenous peoples. Who gets to speak with a global voice and say which practices are prohibited and frowned upon, and which are not?”