Advancement of the interests and protection of animals is cutting-edge social justice for law Professor Jerry Simonelli, who teaches courses in animal law at Wayne State University Law School and at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.
“The animal rights movement is a part of our wider struggle for peace, justice and respect for all being and creation — what Albert Schweitzer referred to as a reverence for life,” he wrote in his 2003 “Non-Violence and the Animal Rights Movement.” He likens the movement to other historic civil rights actions.
Simonelli has been involved in the animal protection movement and in the political arena for many years. He is a former member of the Connecticut House of Representatives, a former legislative assistant to U.S. Congressman Charles Vanik (D-Ohio) and a former advisor to U.S. Congressman Christopher Shays (R-Conn), developing and drafting federal animal protection legislation. He earned his J.D. at the University of Toledo and an LLM at George Washington University. He has a legal practice based in Washington, D.C., and serves on the board of the Animals and Society Institute based in Ann Arbor.
Teaching law students what the law does and does not do to protect animals, and how it can be creatively applied and modified when feasible, is important in preparing the next generation of lawyers to advance the interests of animals, he said.
“The cumulative impact of all the law students who have taken and are now taking animal law courses will result in the field becoming increasingly more mainstream, with real advances for the interests of animals as these students become the future judges, prosecutors and lawyers,” he said. “Animal law is so broad, encompassing traditional areas of law — tort, wills and trust, contract, constitutional, custody, etc. But it also encompasses the recognition that the current legal status of animals as property may be antiquated and in need of re-evaluation, modification and expansion to accommodate and reflect societal beliefs and values.”
The class he’s teaching at Wayne Law considers the traditional areas of law in the field, but “we also consider theories and proposals to advance greater recognition of animal interests,” Simonelli said. The course begins with an overview of the field, and includes the impact on humans of the treatment of animals and the “evolution of thought” about animals throughout history.
The field of animal law gained momentum with the formation of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in 1979 and its subsequent activism has increased the pace of change.
“ADLF’s success in developing animal law has been astounding, since there are now approximately 130 law schools in the United States and eight in Canada that now offer animal law courses,” Simonelli said. “In this short period, animal law has become mainstream.”
Consideration of animals raised for food is an important aspect of Simonelli’s course. He supports a comprehensive federal farm animal anti-cruelty bill to cover animals nationwide.
“The only federal laws we have addressing humane treatment are the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and the 28 Hour Law,” he said. “The reality is that both these laws are not adequately enforced, and the minimal theoretical protection provided is often missing. Further, there is absolutely no federal law that addresses the welfare of farm animals while being raised. And state anti-cruelty laws mostly specifically exempt farm animals from coverage. The result is often shockingly violent, cruel and brutal treatment of farm animals raised for food.”
Pending bills in Congress — the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and the Egg Products Inspection Act — are good steps forward, he said. And consumer education is “crucial,” in his view.
“When people learn about the treatment of farm animals, they are shocked,” Simonelli said. “People assume that our government has in place humane treatment standards, when, in fact, our government has essentially relinquished its responsibility to industry. We need societal education on the treatment of animals and a shift in consciousness away from treating other beings as mere objects — things for us to use.”
What he vehemently does not support is the use of intimidation, threats and violence to further the animal protection movement.
“There still is an image of the animal rights advocate as kooky, and there are some kooky and violent animal rights advocates,” Simonelli said. “Recently, at Wayne State, a Florida-based group called Negotiation is Over targeted a Wayne State researcher with threats and intimidation.”
(The leader of that group, Camille Marino, posted online descriptions of how the researcher should die and published his home address and phone number. She emailed a link to her post to the researcher, and chained herself to the undergraduate library doors at Wayne State in May. She was arrested and charged with aggravated stalking. She recently pleaded guilty.)
“A very small number of groups use tactics that include intimidation, threats and property destruction, but unfortunately, this sometimes mars the image of the vast majority who work through peaceful and lawful means for change,” Simonelli said. “Any social justice movement that pushes societal consciousness is viewed as kooky because it is a new way of viewing relationships and the established order of things. Those calling for abolition of slavery, for women’s rights and for gay rights were all viewed as kooky.”
A companion to two cats, the professor supports people having pets.
“I believe it is through our relationships with companion animals that we will see the greatest and fastest evolution of rights and a re-thinking of crossing the species barrier,” he said. “Under the law, animals are property, yet those of us sharing out homes and lives with companion animals view them as members of the family. The law is currently struggling with how to reconcile the property status with the reality of family membership.”
State laws are changing in regard to trusts benefiting companion animals, custody of companion animals in cases of divorce and separation and in the awarding of “non-economic damages” for suffering and loss when a companion animal is killed or injured, Simonelli said.
“All these developments indicate a serious evolution of the law expanding animal interests and setting new parameters of the human-companion animal relationship,” he said.
Caption: Wayne Law Professor Jerry Simonelli is kept company by Tae, one of his two cats, while he works.