Full Title Name:  Brief Summary of European Animal Welfare Laws: 2003 to Present

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Nicholas K. Pedersen Place of Publication:  Michigan State University College of Law Publish Year:  2009 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center

After much legislative activity in the 1990s, EU animal welfare initiatives have slowed in recent years. This article briefly discusses the reasons why by pointing to factors such as changing EU membership, costs, and fallout from extremist attacks. It then explores the possible future of the EU animal welfare movement.


Europeans invented animal law as we know it 200 years ago, and to this day, their animal law is the most progressive on earth. For example, many of the intense procedures that farmers use on farm animals in the United states are simply not allowed in Europe. This paper takes a look at how European animal law changed from 2003-2009. Specifically, it looks at the historical background, and at important laws that have passed in recent years. It finds that, compared to the 1990s, the years after 2003 were a slow time for animal welfare legislation, and it tries to account for why that may be. Finally, it looks to the future of animal law.

The kinds of laws that now protect European animals were first passed in England in the 1960's. The first famous one protected animals’ "five freedoms": the freedoms to turn around, to groom oneself, to get up, to lie down, to stretch one’s limbs. After a few European countries started passing their own laws, the European Union, a big government made up of European countries, started passing wide-ranging European animal laws too. For example, in the early 90's, the EU banned tethers for veal crates. These tethers had kept baby calves tied down by the neck so they could never move around. In the late 90's, the EU banned battery cages for hens, which crammed many hens inside cages small that they could barely move. The EU passed many other animal laws around this time too.

From 2003 to 2009, though, European animal law stopped growing so fast. Without question, there was still some movement forward: Spain passed a symbolic law that promised to grant apes the rights to life and liberty. But the pace of progress slowed. The EU government passed no major new laws. Many European consumers effectively ignored new European laws by buying cheap meat from foreign countries, where animals weren’t protected. The European Court of Justice, which is Europe’s version of the Supreme Court, interpreted a big new animal law narrowly, so it had a small impact. European countries, like Austria, that had once stood behind peaceful animal activists started cracking down on those activists. Compared with what had come before 2003, these developments showed Europe slowing down on passing new laws for animals.

What explains this slowdown in big new laws for animals? A few things. First, there were a whole bunch of new laws passed just before 2003. Before they pass new laws, legislatures usually like to take the time to see their old laws implemented—which is what’s been happening for the past few years. Second, many new countries without much of a history of animal rights have recently joined the EU—and they have votes. This makes it harder for pro-animal countries to get bold new laws passed. Third, it is expensive to pay for new protections for animals that have already passed, and there have been disputes over how to do it. Fourth, violent animal extremists—who do things like blow up research labs—have damaged the reputation of the animal rights movement in Europe. Fifth, the reputation of mainstream, peaceful animal advocates has gone downhill, partly because of extremist attacks, and partly because of advocates’ own actions. These factors made it much harder to get bold new animal legislation passed in Europe from 2003-2009. Together, they help explain the downturn.

But what about the future? Is animal law going to head down the same path it has since 2003 with little new legislation being passed? No one can predict the future, but the answer looks like No. Many things suggest that progressive legislation is to be expected as we move down the road. First, Europeans still care deeply about animal welfare. Second, the EU is serious about moving forward in the next few years, as demonstrated by its comprehensive Animal Health Strategy Plan for 2007-13. Third, and possibly the most important, climate change policy is likely to place huge pressure on the factory farming industry to reform itself, which is likely to generate better conditions for farm animals.


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