Anna: What course do you teach at Penn?
Penny Ellison: Animal Law and Ethics
A: What’s the class about?
PE: It’s about animals in all aspects that we use and come in contact with. So, we go through all the federal and state laws that apply to animals in different contexts, whether it be domestic animals, agricultural animals, animals that are used in labs, animals that perform in circuses, all of those things. So, we talk about what law is out there and why it protects the animals, and from an ethical perspective, we also get to philosophy and ethics as applied to animals.
A: How long have you taught this class for?
PE: Since 2006
A: How would you say this class has evolved, given you’ve taught it for ten years?
PE: At the beginning, the first year or two I taught it, it was just called Animal Law. I used the casebook and I felt more compelled to stick with what the law is, and I found that pretty unsatisfying, so I stopped using the casebook and started using a collection of essays that are more philosophical and thought-driven which I supplement with copies of cases. I’d say this, there’s a more full discussion of our uses of animals, the ethics of our uses with animals, our relationship with animals, and what the law is but also where the law should consider going in the future.
A: How do students respond to this course? Do you think the responses have also changed over the years?
PE: I don’t think it’s changed over the years. Each year I would say I have a mix of students, where this is their thing, they come to class because they’re vegan or just interested, and I have other students who take it because it’s not an exam class, they write a paper instead. It’s their third year and they want to get out of law school. It makes for an interesting conversation because I have students also from outside the law school, from political science or the vet school, which makes for a great conversation, because some of the vet students have actually been in slaughterhouses. So we don’t have to talk about things just in theory. I don’t think it’s changed over the years, but definitely the student reaction, and how many students every year tell me how they have thought about some of these issues and how their views have changed, that’s what keeps me coming back.
A: So you would say that coming into this class and coming out of this class, students have different perspectives. Do you think that any of them would change their actions, such as going vegetarian or considering going into animal law, after this course?
PE: Definitely, all of those things have happened. The students do a year-end evaluation; it’s anonymous, but many of them tell me on that that they’ve changed their eating habits or talked to their family about different things. One of my former students is now working for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, another is working for the International Wildlife Conservation Organization, so definitely. There aren’t that many paying jobs out there in the animal law world, so some are working full time, others are doing pro-bono work on top of working in a law firm.
A: That’s awesome. What lead you to teach this class?
PE: Penn Law students who wanted to have this class petitioned the dean to offer the class, and declared to him that there were many other prominent other law schools teaching animal law, that it wasn’t really a fringe thing anymore, and I think the Dean said fine, if you can find someone to teach it. At the time I was still working at a law firm, a member of the brand new animal law committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and they sent something around saying, “Hey, if anybody is interested teaching this class at Penn.” And I thought, “Yea, I’m interested!” Even though my practice was very much business-oriented commercial litigation that wasn’t doing anything for animals at the time, it was my area of interest.
A: You’re not a full time professor at Penn, right?
PE: No, I work in the federal Court of Appeals. The federal Court sits here in Philadelphia and I help people mediate cases that are on appeal. So, I work about 40 hours a week, I teach every spring, and, along with the vice chair of the board of the Pennsylvania SPCA, where I work on a lot of legislative issues with animals, I chair the legislative committee for stricter cruelty laws. I also run a charity that was founded by one of my students called Hands to Paw.
A: So you said you’ve been successful trying to pass some legislation for anti-cruelty laws?
PE: It’s very very hard to get legislation passed, almost everything just sits there and nothing happens, even though it should be not controversial. In 2013, we got a Cost of Care Act passed, which essentially means that, when they see animals that are cruelty cases, they used to have to take care of them until whole case was over because the animals still were the property of the people from whom they seized them. The Cost of Care Act says that once the charges are filed for cruelty and the shelter has your animal, you have to either pay for their ongoing cost of care or you relinquish them to the shelter who can adopt it now. So, it was important because it means more animals can be seized because the shelter can afford it, and most important to me, it means that the animals in cruelty cases don’t have to sit in the shelter for years until their cases are over.
A: What’s the work that goes into passing that kind of legislation? What’s the behind-the-scenes?
PE: First you have to look around to see what other laws there are in other states that you might use as models. You have to anticipate who objectors are all the time to animal legislation, which is, in Pennsylvania, The Farm Bureau, and the NRA actually, because pigeon shoots are a big thing here so the animal protection lobby is always trying to get pigeon shoots outlawed, so even if we propose something that has nothing to do with pigeon shoots, they always think pigeon shoots are next. And the NKC actually, the National Kennel Club, comes out against stricter cruelty laws because they think that it will hurt their breeders. So, you have to anticipate the opposition you’re up against, trying to write your laws to respond to that. Then after we had a law we went to Harrisburg for an open-hearing discussion with opponent and proponents of the law, and that’s when the fact that I’m a mediator really came in handy, because we came up with things that responded to concerns that were raised without really gutting the law. You know, sometimes you compromise so much that it’s not even worth having it, but we managed to compromise to keep it intact.
A: To go back to the course for a second, in the description online, you said that one of the course concentrations was health law, so how would you say that health law fits into this course?
PE: We certainly talk about how an animal could be used for food, and we certainly talk about the impacts on the environment, which are substantial in terms of water quality and air quality and antibiotics that are fed to animals, which would certainly fit animal welfare issues into health issues because you’re taking animals and you’re producing them at a scale that has health impacts as well.
A: Going off of that, you mentioned environmental law; if someone did want to go into some form of animal protection, do you think going to it from an environmental standpoint might make legislation pass quicker than if you just go from a strictly animal rights standpoint?
PE: Yes, absolutely. In fact, there’s so much more existing environmental law, though we don’t have as much environmental protection as we should, back in the 70s we did manage to get passed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. For examples, those are tools that you can use to have a backdoor way to protect animals. For factory farms or cows that are on feedlots, there are no laws protecting their welfare and how you treat them. But there are laws that say that you can’t put this much effluent in the water, things like that, so people will use those to bring lawsuits to say you’re in violation of the Clean Water Act, when really what they’re trying to do is not have you raise the cows like this anymore. I’ll give you another example: The Humane Society frequently will get people to become undercover investigators and go in and film what’s happening in the slaughterhouses. They had big one in California where the cows were being pushed with construction equipment towards to the slaughter line, which they aren’t supposed to do. When they publicized it, they didn’t really come from an animal welfare standpoint, they said that this is a slaughterhouse that provides for the school lunch program. They take the, this is a human health issue route, saying the cows may have mad cow disease and this is why they can’t walk, but they’re pushing them to slaughter anyway. They know that more people would be interested in the safety of kids in schools than whether or not a cow in the last two minutes of his life in uncomfortable.
A: What direction do you think animal law is going in? In the next ten years, or the next fifty years, where do you think we’ll be?
PE: One of the things that have changed since I’ve been teaching this class is that more and more people care about where their food comes from, and are interested in understanding what a battery cage is, or understanding what we really mean when we say “free range.” So I think that ten years from now, twenty years from now, more and more people will be caring about those things, and I think that the end result is we consume fewer animal products. In whole foods, they have their animal welfare rating system, but most people don’t want to pay $26.99 a pound, and the eggs cost more, so I think there will be people making other choices. They’re concerned enough about the animals being mistreated, but they’re not necessarily in the position to pay for animals being treated better, so I think people will hopefully make eating animals more of an occasional thing than an everyday thing.
A: Is there something that particularly surprises you about working in this field? Something you feel is weird that you have to keep fighting for?
PE: I think I would say on the legislative side of things, sometimes I’m just surprised at getting opposition to things that should be no-brainers. I know that many things I want would cost money; the officers aren’t really paid to go out and enforce the animal cruelty laws. They’re employed by places like the Pennsylvania SPCA that has to raise charitable money to pay them. To me, that doesn’t seem like it makes sense, it’s a criminal law and the SPCA has to pay for it. But I know well enough not to go and ask for money because they’re going to say that there are a million things they need to pay for. So, I guess what surprises me is that I focus on something that has no budget impact and everyone can agree on, that people still oppose it. I would say that’s the most surprising thing.
A: If you’re a student and you were interested in pursuing some career in animal welfare, would you say that law is one of the most effective ways to go at it, or do you think that going into nonprofit work would be equally or more effective? What areas do you think need the most help right now?
PE: It depends what your skill set is. There definitely are opportunities in animal law to try and make change, but you know, if people are good at business, and other fields, the shelter community could also use some great minds. Also, marketing! We are still killing 20% of the animals that enter the shelter in Philadelphia. If somebody understands marketing, maybe somebody would be able to do something about that, because we should not be euthanizing savable animals when there are people out there who want to adopt. So, I think it depends on what your skill set it.
A: Definitely. For one final question, what would you say the most pressing issue is today in terms of animal rights or animal welfare?
PE: Unfortunately, there’s a long line for that. If you try to avoid animal products, it’s very very hard. You go into a restaurant, it’s almost impossible to try and consume something not made of animal products, if you’re including dairy, which for ethical reasons, is pretty much the same as meat or worse, so I would say the proliferation of animal products. Let me add to that too: the destruction of habitat because it’s very hard to reverse that, and there are lots of species that we don’t want to lose that we’re losing because of habitat destruction.
A: That’s all, thank you very much!
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