Animal law encompasses not only companion animals, commonly referred to as "pets," but also those animals living in the wild, and animals used for entertainment, food and in research. Animal welfare attorneys seek to protect animals from abuse under existing statutory and case laws and seek to extend animal protection through legislative change.
Faced with the property status of animals, before seeking justice through the civil court system, an animal welfare attorney must determine:
- Who has standing to sue when an animal is injured?
- What constitutes legal cruelty under the existing laws?
- What damages are available to a litigant seeking justice?
Only with a proper litigant, that is, one who has standing to sue, can an animal attorney seek remedies in civil court. Despite the growing recognition of animals as sentient beings - capable of feeling pain and understanding their environments, damages cannot be sought for the suffering of the animal alone. For this reason, several scholars have proposed a new legal classification for animals, which would grant animals a status greater than that of property, but less than that of a human. This classification, or "living property," has yet to be formally recognized by the courts, but is nonetheless gaining ground. As with most cases, the outcome of a civil case involving animal abuse depends heavily upon the sympathies of the judge or jury.
In many states, including Illinois, certain animal abuses are a felony. Criminal prosecution of such an animal abuser is almost always obtained via a sympathetic prosecutor who recognizes the inherent danger an animal abuser poses to the human population. The prosecutor must be willing to devote the time and energy necessary to prove the allegations of animal abuse. While society has placed a lesser status on the lives of non-human animals, the psychological connection between violence towards animals and subsequent violence towards humans is undeniable. Therefore, even persons who would not otherwise care about the welfare of animals have a stake in the outcome of a criminal animal abuse case for the abuser's potential threat to society.
Although a non-traditional legal field, animal law involves traditional subject matter, such as tort, contract, criminal and constitutional law. Animal law is currently taught in over 69 law schools, including Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, and Northwestern. Recognizing the growth in this field, most state and local bar associations now have animal law committees.