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Sorting Out Animal Policy: Ideas, Problems, and Solutions

Jerry Mitchell
p. 340-355


Animals are the focus of public policy around the world. Nonetheless, animal policy has not been established as a separate domain. This article describes the elements of animal policy to clarify its scope for public discourse and to give it a distinct research status. Three perspectives on animal policy are identified—anthropocentrism, animal welfare, and natural rights. Each of these ideas shapes the responses to the policy issues of animal cruelty, species disruptions, and the use of animals for public service. By ordering various problems and solutions within animal policy, an illustration is provided of how policy coherence can inform public discourse and governance.

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1Animals are an area of public concern that can be placed naturally in a distinct policy domain.

Since humans share the earth with non-human species, it is appropriate that animals would be a part of policy studies, just as they have an inherent presence in the disciplines of biology or veterinary science. Animal policy can be viewed as being on a par with other subject areas, such as criminal justice, civil rights, the environment, foreign affairs, healthcare, social welfare, and transportation. By putting non-human species in a separate policy category, they are accorded a status for public discourse commensurate with their importance among the world’s policymaking bodies at the international, national, and subnational levels. A coherent dialogue focused on animal policy is of relevance to the billions of people who consume animals, engage in animal commerce, advocate for animals, and own pets.

Policy Scope

2The Oxford English Dictionary defines an animal as a living organism that feeds on organic matter, typically having specialized sense organs and a nervous system and able to respond rapidly to stimuli. Animals encompass mammals, which includes humans, as well as insects, reptiles, and fish. The issue with the dictionary definition is that it is rarely used in practice. Most of the time, the term “animal” is employed loosely, generically, and without regard to nuance. When mention is made of farm animals, wildlife, or domestic pets, it is usually done without ever offering a complete inventory of which creature goes exactly into which category. Even laws are imprecise. For example, the State of New York in the United States has an animal cruelty statute which sweepingly declares that an animal “includes every living creature except a human being”. Animals are not defined at all in Japan’s Act on Welfare and Management of Animals. Given the lack of precision, the best that can be done is to go with whatever the speaker or text implies when the term animal is used. That said, the drawback to a relaxed approach is that it confounds analysis, making it difficult, for example, to decide whether grasshoppers and crickets should receive the same kind of treatment as elephants and rhinos.

3Animals are part of public affairs because their existence infuses earthly life. It is estimated that there are 8.7 million species globally, of which 2.2 million are marine (Mora et al., 2011). Animals appear in suburban backyards, city streets, farms, oceans, and within the boundaries of more than 6,000 national parks and protected areas. The scope of policymaking is equally vast with most nations having laws focused on the killing, care, and control of animal populations. There are more than 1,400 animal-related statutes in the United States alone.

4Animal policymaking is propelled by a growing collection of political organizations with burgeoning membership rosters. Too numerous to enumerate, with new ones being created all the time, interest groups tackle every angle of animal policy. Some associations represent animal-related businesses, such as the National Pork Producers in the United States, whose interest is to protect the hog industry. Agricultural trade unions are also present, such as France’s Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles, which has protested the serving of vegetarian meals in public schools. Professional bodies, such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, regulate animal-related enterprises. Pro-animal advocacy groups include those who campaign against animal experimentation, such as the Animal Anti-Vivisection Society and Cruelty-Free International. Other animal organizations focus on specific animals, such as the Italian Horse Protection Association and Grey2K USA which advocates an end to greyhound racing. Other collectives are loosely formulated without an organized hierarchy, such as the Animal Liberation Front, which engages in subversive activities such as stealing animals from circuses or vandalizing research labs that use animals.

5Animal groups have different objectives, yet are all similar in that they bring ideas to the policy process. Knowledge frameworks are important because they shape how problems and solutions are defined (Swinkels, 2020). Animal policy is fashioned from theories about the nature of the human-animal relationship, which can be gleaned from published works, social practices, and laws. There are three ideas to consider: anthropocentrism, animal welfare, and natural rights.


6The anthropocentric view of the human-animal relationship has two forms. One is the absolutist position that other species have no value other than their value to humans. Animals are seen as objects, like rocks or plants. A less extreme view allows animals to have interests, but it is human interests that take priority. A pejorative expression for anthropocentrism is speciesism, coined by British psychologist Richard D. Ryder in 1971, which is defined as a systemic prejudice toward non-human species, equivalent to racism or sexism (Phelps, 2007).

7The anthropocentric idea of human superiority is deeply rooted. Animals were hunted and killed for sustenance at the inception of human existence and then domesticated for food, work, and companionship, beginning some 12,000 years ago (Carson, 1972). While there is no way to know what early humans believed, an obvious logic is that animals selectively devour other animals, and so it is likewise acceptable for humans to choose to consume and use particular non-human species.

8A guiding premise of anthropocentrism is that humans and animals are fundamentally unalike. In ancient Greek philosophy, Aristotle puts forward the idea that animals exist in nature for the sake of humanity. He asserts that humans are animals, yet with the difference that humans are “political animals” (Arnhart, 1994). People reside in a polis where they realize their potential through the gift of speech and their reasoning capacity for self-governance. According to Aristotle, animals cannot communicate with language, live solely by instinct, lack any sense of self-consciousness, and are not even able to laugh (Fudge, 2008).

9A series of philosophers reached the same conclusion as Aristotle. In the 17th Century, Rene Descartes conducted a series of experiments on animals, including several live dissections, and observed that animals were incapable of experiencing pain. He said that animals were like complex watches made by God and, like watches, they lacked consciousness (Preece, 2014). In a notorious remark, he labeled “a crying dog no different from a whining gear that needs oil” (Francione, 2004, p. 111). In the late 1700s, Immanuel Kant supposed that animals were “a means for human ends”, although he added a caveat that cruelty was wrong because the mistreatment of animals could rationalize humans to do the same to each other (Calarco, 2015, p. 8). At the turn of the 20th Century, Emile Durkheim proposed that the human/animal binary was essential for cultural life because it brought out the distinction that humans “alone have the faculty of conceiving the ideal” (Gross, 2015, p. 71).

10From a different direction, the Abrahamic religions evinced a spiritual authority for the superiority of humans over animal life. In the book of Genesis, for instance, God awarded humanity “dominion” over other creatures. Early Christian theologians, such as Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas, evinced an exalted spiritual position for humans by deducing that animals were without souls and could not enter heaven (Salisbury, 2014). Religion eventually connected up with Aristotle during the Middle Ages, which led to the formulation of the Great Chain of Being whereby God and the angels were placed in a hierarchy above humans who were on top of animals and plants (Lovejoy, 2001). The Great Chain rationalized using animals to satisfy the full range of human desires, whether for amusement, religious sacrifice, fashion, or sustenance (Allen, 2016).

11Legally, anthropocentrism is codified by classifying animals as property. A human owner of an animal has the right of possession, control, enjoyment, and disposition (Tauber, 2015). Animals lack standing in courts to make claims. In most countries, animals in the wild are government property to be controlled and managed in the same manner as trees and rivers in national parks. The killing of an animal is not murder because animals are more akin to objects than people (de Villiers, 2017).

Animal Welfare

12A second perspective on the human-animal relationship is focused on animal welfare. Even if people hold sway over animals, the idea is that humans have a moral responsibility to treat animals humanely because animals can feel pain and have cognitive abilities that must be recognized. From a utilitarian calculus, animals can be used for human purposes—food, research, or entertainment—as long as the benefits to humans exceed the harm to animals and unnecessary pain and suffering is avoided for the animals (Boyd, 2017).

13Animal welfare arises in philosophy from the proposition that animals are not that different from humans, and therefore, the interests of animals cannot be disregarded (Singer, 2016, p. 7). Michel de Montaigne (1580, p. 2) said: “We owe justice to men, and graciousness and benignity to other creatures that are capable of it.” John Locke dismissed the separation of humans and animals by observing that “there are some Brutes, that seem to have as much Knowledge and Reason as some that are called men” (Locke, 1689, p. 294). In 1748, David Hume observed that “next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men” (Fellenz, 2007, p. 41). In 1789, Jeremy Bentham, who established the philosophy of utilitarianism, wrote in a footnote: “The question is not, can they reason? nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?” (Bentham, 1789, reprinted 1988, p. 10).

14In the 19th Century, Charles Darwin fundamentally changed the human-animal calculus by reconceptualizing biology. Darwin asserted that all organic beings that had ever lived descended from one primordial form into which life was first breathed. Over millions of years of continued natural selection, a divergence of lineages occurred. There were no huge leaps, abysses, or breaks between species; rather, humans, animals, and all life forms share in life’s continuous development (Calarco, 2015). The distinctions between humans and animals were differences of degree rather than of kind (Darwin, 1871).

15The field of ethology, the scientific study of animal behavior, has offered evidence that conduct supposedly unique among human beings is present in varying forms and to varying degrees among a wide number of animal species (Dugatkin, 2019; Newkirk & Stone, 2020). Research indicates that animals can reason and self-reflect, develop traditions and rituals, create tools and art, recognize the pain and death of others, and demonstrate a capacity for altruism (Dugatkin, 2019; Fellenz, 2007). Elephants grieve and mourn for dead companions; birds create elaborate ruses to deceive other animals; squirrels have precise long-­term memories; certain primates demonstrate self-­awareness; and ravens have the capacity for human facial and vocal recognition (Calarco, 2015). Confined animals have figured out novel ways of escaping their confinement (Hribal, 2011). Brain scans have found that dogs can even understand human speech (Prichard et al., 2018).

16When it comes to religion, Judaism has a code of conduct (tsa'ar ba'alei hayim) that requires animals to be treated with compassion (Allen, 2016). In Islam, a passage from the Qu’ran (6:38) allows for treating animals like humans since “All the beasts that roam the earth and all the birds that soar on high are but communities like your own” (Allen, 2016, p. 260). For Christianity, the Anglican Reverend Doctor Humphrey Primatt’s 1776 book, Duty of Mercy and the Sin of Cruelty to Brute Animals, claimed that humans had God’s permission to kill animals for food or necessary use, but not to cause them “unnecessary pain or lingering death” (Phelps, 2007, p. 85). Albert Schweitzer, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, drew on Protestantism to develop a “reverence for life” theology in which he said: “A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all of life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives.” (Allen, 2016, p. 231). In Catholicism, Saint Francis of Assisi, declared the Christian patron saint of ecology in 1979, proclaimed in the early 1200s that all creatures were part of the family of God (Allen, 2016). More recently, Pope Francis (2015, p. 49) released an encyclical on the environment in which he stated: “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

17Animal welfare as a cultural phenomenon has been propelled by an explosion of books, articles, websites, and documentaries on the place of animals in human society. For example, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (1877) used the perspective of a horse to illustrate the virtue of being kind to horses. But unquestionably, the tipping point for popularizing the plight of animals was Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation published in 1975. The book seemingly touched a collective nerve in its horrifying depictions of animal farming and animal experimentation, parried with an animal welfare agenda grounded in utilitarianism. Google’s Ngram Viewer, an algorithm that enumerates the frequency of terminology in publications, indicates a 600% increase in references using the phrase “animal welfare” after 1975. Enter “animal welfare” in Google and there are more than 78 million results. The Animal Studies Program at Michigan State University has a bibliography with more than 4,000 sources of animal-related policy research, mostly from the 1980s onward.

18Animal law is largely about where property rights end and animal protection begins. Human necessity is the determining factor (Deckha, 2021). A cow beaten with a stick for perverse pleasure is legally unacceptable and the owner can be prosecuted. A cow killed for human consumption by slitting its neck is legally acceptable and no owner can be charged with a crime. The project of animal welfare’s advocates is to classify the greatest number of harmful actions toward animals as unnecessary.

Natural Rights

19A third perspective on the human-animal relationship is based on the idea of natural rights. Since humans and animals are more alike than different, ethical consistency requires that animals should be guaranteed the same aspirations as humans, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (Eisenman, 2014). There is no moral rationale for humans to be enslaved for any purpose, nor to be killed for food or fashion, so the same should be true for animals. Animal welfare is dismissed because it is an oxymoron to think that there is a humane way to take the life of another species (Tobias, 1999).

20The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras offered the initial precepts for extending natural rights to animals (Phelps, 2007). He believed that all sentient beings possessed identical souls and that the soul, not the physical body, was immortal. After the death of one body, the soul was reborn in another, not necessarily of the same species. Because one could end up as an animal in a subsequent life, Pythagoras forbade the eating of meat and condemned animal sacrifice. He was essentially a prototype vegetarian, a term that would be popularized with the formation of the British Vegetarian Society in 1847 (Phelps, 2007).

21The contemporary proposition is that animals have a moral standing much like that of infants and children who cannot speak for themselves (Francoine, 2021; Regan, 2004). The fundamental right of any animal is to experience life as nature intended (Korsgaard, 2018; Webster, 2005). For example, elephants should be encouraged to fulfill their natural inclination to move freely in groups instead of as solitary objects in zoos. To give another example, chickens should be able to roost in trees, as they did before they became dinner fare. It is the responsibility of humans to discover the nature of animals and to create the circumstances that allow for their proclivities to flourish (Nussbaum, 2004).

22Eastern religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, have long rejected the human-animal divide by holding that the divine exists in all living things. In Hinduism, for instance, the cow is sacred and may not be killed, although milk can still be consumed. But, clearly, no religion has gone as far in establishing the natural rights of animals as Jainism. In the Seventh Century B.C.E., Vardhamana Mahavira founded Jainism in India with nonviolence toward animals at its core. Jainism holds that “one should not injure, subjugate, enslave, torture, or kill any living being including animals, insects, plants, and vegetables” (Phelps, 2007: 19).

23The legal position is that animals are not property; rather, they are persons with all the rights and privileges that such a status engenders (Francoine, 2021). Animals achieve personhood because they can reason, communicate, initiate action, and exhibit intelligent behaviors. Animals may not be citizens in a constitutional sense, yet they are denizens who share geographical space with humans. They are akin to migrants or tourists that enjoy certain legal protections in a country, no matter their country of origin (Donaldson & Kymlicka, 2013). Possible legal guarantees that can be extended to animals include a right to have lawsuits brought on their behalf and to be compensated in some fashion for any cruelties they suffer (Wise, 2000).

Animal cruelty

24The predominant problem on the animal policy agenda is animal cruelty. There are two meanings of animal cruelty. One is the unnecessary infliction of physical pain, suffering, or death upon an animal. The other is the failure to provide the basic care required for an animal to thrive and survive.

25What is and is not animal cruelty is the central policy issue. The answer depends on the animal and the beliefs in anthropocentrism, animal welfare, and natural rights that are adopted by governments, businesses, trade groups, and advocacy organizations. For example, it is a matter of opinion whether horse racing is cruel. From an anthropocentric perspective, horse owners, jockeys, and gamblers believe that it is entirely acceptable and enjoyable to watch equines race each other, even if the occasional horse stumbles and needs to be euthanized (Finnegan, 2021). Animal welfare’s advocates, such as The Humane Society of the United States, contend that horse racing has the potential for abuse, yet horses can be adequately protected through robust oversight by regulatory bodies. For those who champion a natural rights position, such as an interest group like Horseracing Wrongs, horse racing is an intrinsically archaic, painful endeavor that can never be made safe and therefore should be abolished.

26The public policy debate on how to define the problem of animal cruelty plays out continuously throughout the world in various areas of concern. Is it cruel or not to poison rats for public health in cities, to use monkeys for medical experiments, to employ elephants in a circus, to allow horses to pull carriages in public parks, to hunt antelope, to watch orcas do tricks in water amusement parks, to keep geese out of airplane engines, to kill minks for fur coats, to permit tigers in zoos, to rope calves in rodeos, to feed pigeons on city streets, or to euthanize lost dogs? Some activities have been decided for the most part as definitely cruel, including cockfighting, dogfighting, bear-baiting, rabbit coursing, gander pulling, and sacrificing lambs in a temple (Beers, 2006).

27The contemporary political discourse over animal cruelty is being forced by a wide-ranging number of pro-animal advocacy organizations (Beers, 2006). This includes the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its campaign for animal welfare since 1824, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which collects more than $50 million annually to advocate for animal interests, the Euro Group for Animals, based in Brussels, Belgium, with representatives from 26 of the 27 European Union member states, and the African Network for Animal Welfare which incorporates the work of stakeholders in 25 African countries. While the total number of advocacy organizations worldwide is unknown, an indicator of the scope of activity is that there are more than 300 animal advocacy nonprofit organizations in New York City alone.

28The arena where there is unquestionably the most vigorous discussion about animal cruelty concerns consolidated feeding operations (Foer, 2009). So-called factory farming, a term coined by British animal advocate Ruth Harrison in 1964, is an industrialized system to harvest animal products, primarily cows, pigs, fish, turkeys, chickens (broilers and layers), and various types of fish. The farmed animals are genetically engineered, restricted in mobility, fed controlled diets, and given anti-microbial drugs to thwart disease (Foer, 2009). Any individual farm may have thousands of creatures. For instance, a large breeding farm in China can hold as many as 8,000 sows on 13 hectares. Largely hidden from public view, an ordinary slaughterhouse can deliver thousands of food products daily through an assembly-line operation. The typical dinner chicken, for instance, is processed at the average age of 42 days by being hung upside down from a conveyor belt, sent through a water bath of electricity which supposedly knocks it unconscious, having its neck slit, and then being transferred to a carving table, to end up as parts packaged for sale to retail outlets and restaurants (Grandin & Johnson, 2010). More than 70 billion animals are mass-produced globally, yielding enormous financial returns for agribusiness conglomerates. The Brazilian firm JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, has annual profits of $22 billion from the sale of beef, poultry, and pork in Australia, Europe, South America, and the United States. On the downside, factory farming yields large-scale negative externalities, such as being a major source of greenhouse gas emissions and a generator of sewage that potentially seeps into municipal water systems (Purdy, 2021; Foer, 2009).

29The anthropocentric position is that animals have to be slaughtered en masse in order to feed the world’s population efficiently and effectively. Without animal-based foods, there would be food shortages and nutritional deficiencies, leading to global health problems. The animal welfare view admits that animal-based commodities are necessary, which involves some degree of suffering, so the best solution is to establish rules and practices to mitigate the anguish of creatures on their way to dinner plates and fashionable wearables. For instance, pigs should be allowed to root freely up to the point of their demise (Grandin & Johnson, 2010). The natural rights perspective says that all forms of animal farming are a form of torture that is nothing less than a “perpetual hell” for the animal victims (Faruqi, 2015, p. 328). Therefore, consolidated feeding operations should be discontinued, and liberated animals left to live out their lives comfortably in farm sanctuaries, with humanity shifting to vegetarianism.

30The solutions to animal cruelty have come primarily in the form of laws and regulations (Hunter & Brisbin, Jr., 2016). Global in scope, most of the policy action has been from an animal welfare standpoint with criminal statutes that sanction those found guilty of animal cruelty. In Europe, the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon stipulated that member states should “pay full regard to the welfare requirements of animals”.9 All European nations have done so through constitutional provisions, statutes, and administrative actions (Cardoso et al., 2017). In Africa, the Kenya Wildlife Service is one of many public agencies on the continent that protect elephants, lions, rhinos, and other wildlife threatened by poaching and the encroachment of human settlements (Evans, 2018). In South America, Brazil created the Permanent Technical Commission on Animal Welfare in 2018 to coordinate animal welfare focal points in each of the 27 Brazilian states (de Oliverira Souza et al., 2019). In Asia, Malaysia has enacted a comprehensive Animal Welfare Act that includes public awareness campaigns, South Korea has introduced an Animal Welfare Strategy for all parts of government, India has established the National Institute of Animal Welfare to provide training and education for a wide range of stakeholders, and China, although slow to focus on animals, has begun to implement policies to protect the health of farm animals (Nizamuddin & Rahman, 2019). In the United States, all 50 state governments have laws criminalizing animal cruelty, with the federal government in 2019 making the subject a national priority through the passage of the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act.

31Even though the focus of public policy has been mostly on animal welfare, there have been initiatives with more of a natural rights flavor. The Constitution of Switzerland was amended in 1992 to recognize the dignity of non-human species for genetic engineering, while the Czech Republic Civil Code was changed in 2014 to state explicitly that living animals are not objects (Cardoso et al., 2017). In 2021, Spain required pets to be considered as being like family members in custody battles (Bleier, 2021). In 2018, the State of Florida in the United States banned greyhound racing through a public ballot initiative, which left only four states in the country permitting the sport (Larson, 2020).

32The anthropocentric view is still a part of public policy. The Animal Welfare Act in the United States regulates the use of animals for experimentation, yet the Act exempts mice, even though they make up to 80 percent of testing samples (Knight, 2011). Similarly, the United Kingdom enacted a law banning fox hunting with dogs, although with a gaping loophole allowing hunts to proceed if they protect livestock, game, crops, or fisheries. China, Vietnam, and other countries continue to allow their citizens to consume exotic creatures, even in the face of international pressure to discontinue the practice. Although the bane of animal welfare and rights advocates, bullfighting persists as acceptable entertainment in Spain, while camel racing flourishes unabated in the Middle East.

33Another aspect of public policy, with the potential to alter every society’s relationship with animals fundamentally, is the private sector development of plant-based and cell-cultured dairy and meats (Purdy, 2020; Reese, 2018). Plant-based versions are already on grocery shelves, with 2020 retail sales in the United States of more than $7 billion. Cell-cultured meats are in embryonic form with many possible varieties to be created, but the basic idea is to harvest the cells from animals, such as cows or ducks, feed the cells with a nutrient-dense liquid in a laboratory, and use a bioreactor as a mixer that yields food with the same flavor and nutritional content of dead animal parts (Purdy, 2020). Since the cells can be duplicated multiple times without killing any animal, the prospect is to eliminate the entire factory farming industry, which would effectively change the entire discussion about animal welfare. Governments will be intimately involved in this process because they will need to approve the safety of cell-cultured products, even including deciding whether or not to use the words “dairy” or “meat” as descriptors. Agribusiness may oppose lab foods as being unfair competition for animal products, or it may seize the opportunity by capturing the market for alternative meats and dairy (Purdy, 2020). For environmentalists, the specter of less industrialized farming could be an ingredient in the dialogue over climate change, given that large cattle feedlots are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Species Disruptions

34Many problems and solutions for animal policy are of an ecological nature. Ecology is a term coined by Ernst Haeckel in 1866 to refer to the relationship among organisms and between organisms and their environment (Nijhuis, 2021). There are three ecological problems that can be properly placed in animal policy: species extinction, invasive species, and zoonosis.

35The problem of species extinction is based on the concept of biodiversity and the ecological imperative to protect the web of life by maintaining a diversity of species. The concern for species extinction was spurred by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, and has since been championed by conservation biologists. The conclusion is that a wide range of species has disappeared and many more are predicted to vanish (Kolbert, 2021). A 2019 report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found one million species vulnerable to extinction. The list of already extinct animals includes the passenger pigeon, the saber-toothed tiger, the dodo bird, and the black rhino (Nijhuis, 2021).

36There are multiple causes for what has been termed the Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction (Kolbert, 2021). Implicitly anthropocentric, the expansion of homes and businesses into animal habitats is one aspect of the problem. Another is the increasing use of power lines and electrified fences that end up killing birds, monkeys, pangolins, and tortoises. In Africa, rhinos, elephants, and lions are being eliminated by poaching, driven by the consumption of bushmeat, the sale of animal byproducts for medicinal purposes throughout the world, and the narcissistic desires of trophy hunters (Nuwer, 2018). Causes are also cascading. As apex species disappear, such as harbor seals in coastal regions of the Northeast Pacific Ocean and cheetahs in Tanzania, other species become dominant, leading to the deaths of still more species.

37International agreements and national laws are the principal solutions to species extinction. These solutions have been largely based on a natural rights philosophy which says that animals have a right to exist in their natural habitats. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, established in 1948, developed the Red List, a global enumeration of endangered species. The major agreement between nations to prevent the trade in vanishing species is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The first national law to be enacted was the Endangered Species Act in the United States in 1973. This requires a listing of endangered species with civil and criminal penalties for harming listed animals and their habitats. Similar statutes have since been enacted by other nations (Nijhuis, 2021). Some countries have a raft of both formal and informal strategies to manage endangered species. For example, South Africa has 28 different rhino management initiatives, including trade bans, protected wildlife preserves, and hunting regulations (Crookes & Blignaut, 2016).

38The overpopulation of particular species is another ecological problem in animal policy. Invasive species with high reproductive rates and few natural predators are problematic because they upset the natural balance of species in the environment and damage infrastructure, such as sewer and water systems. Examples of invasive species in Europe include the Norway rat, the North American gray squirrel, and the Canadian goose (Keller et al., 2011). In the United States, invasive species include the Burmese python, the European starling, and the Brown Tree snake (Duenas et al., 2018).

39Invasive species that pose direct threats to animals or plants are managed at the international level by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). A source of global information about invasive species is the Invasive Species Information Center of the United States Department of Agriculture. The European Union has a set of policy prescriptions on invasive alien species (IAS) that includes “a coordinated EU-wide framework for action to prevent, minimize and mitigate the adverse impacts of IAS on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and limit their damage to the economy and human health” (European Union, 2016). Jurisdictions around the world have also adopted unique measures. For example, Australia’s national government has authorized feeding poisoned sausages to more than two million feral cats held responsible for destroying vegetation and avian populations (Aquirre, 2019). From an animal welfare position, several American states have successfully engaged in surgical sterilization programs to reduce the overpopulation of deer in suburban areas (Denicola & Denicola, 2020).

40Another ecological issue is zoonosis, the spillover of diseases from animals to humans. Animals have been the sources of SARS, Ebola, bird flu, HIV, rabies, Lyme disease, Hendra, and West Nile fever (Quammen, 2012). It is most likely that SARS-CoV-2 (COVID 19) originated in animals, whether in the wild, through a carrier in an exotic food market, or in a lab setting (Felter, 2021). A spillover occurs when a virus hosted by an animal jumps to a human through an airborne aerosol, oral-fecal contamination, blood-borne infection, or bite saliva. The challenge for a virus is to get from one host to another, penetrate a cell within that host, commandeer the cell’s equipment and resources for producing multiple copies of itself, and then get back out and on to the next host. For example, SARS in 2003 originated in bats, moved to civet cats as carriers, which were consumed by humans and purchased in Chinese exotic food markets, spreading within crowded urban settings and globally by air transport (Quammen, 2012).

41Intensive agriculture raises the prospect of a more pernicious form of zoonosis. The problem on factory farms thus far has been the spread of disease among huge animal populations congregated in confined conditions. This is what happened with mad cow disease (Bovine spongiform encephalopathy) in the United Kingdom, which ravaged cattle populations on more than one occasion. Similarly, African swine fever, a deadly virus in pigs and wild boar, led China to cull more than 130 million pigs in 2019. There is certainly the possibility of animal-human transmission from factory farms, such as a variant of avian flu moving from chickens to humans. Chicken workers have already been infected with campylobacter, a type of bacteria that causes diarrhea and abdominal pain. For those who believe in natural rights for animals, no solution has been forthcoming that saves the lives of unhealthy animals while also stopping the spread of disease.

42Epidemiological surveillance is one policy solution that prevents the spread of pathogens before they spread among animal populations. The lead organization has been the World Health Organization (WHO), which provides technical assistance to national public health systems in their efforts to mediate and eradicate diseases. Additionally, national governments have devised unique systems for tracking diseased wildlife where there is a potential for spillover to humans. In Canada, a national effort to investigate pathogens and diseases in wild animals is carried out by the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre, a partnership among Canada’s five veterinary colleges and federal, provincial, and territorial government agencies (Artois et al., 2009). The central focus is to collect information on zoonotic diseases through post-mortems of dead wild animals.

Public Service

43Another dimension of animal policy is the use of animals to solve societal problems. This is not about employing oxen to plow fields, or using dog-sled teams for sport, but rather the engagement of animals to achieve public service objectives. It might appear that public service animals are being used for anthropocentric purposes because the animals have no choice in the matter. Yet the people who work with animals commonly express the view that they act as a co-equal team, characterized by a deep-seated mutual bond.

44There is no place in government administration where animals have made a greater contribution to public service than in the military (Goodavage, 2012; Hutton, 2018). Throughout the world, dogs have performed sentry duty, horses have carried riders into battle, mules have borne supplies, dolphins have located mines in the oceans, and homing pigeons have delivered messages from one base camp to another. An especially celebrated warhorse named Reckless, who served with the United States Marine Corps in the Korean War, was officially promoted to the rank of sergeant, the only animal ever to receive such an honor (Hutton, 2015).

45K-9 dogs are now a common presence in municipal police departments worldwide. It was estimated in 2017 that 29 percent of municipal police departments in the United States employed dogs, with about 8,000 engaged in public safety activities (Barber et al., 2019). Search and rescue dogs have also been increasingly utilized in the aftermath of earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, and wildfires (Stavrinides & Schlimm, 2019).

46People are finding new ways to employ animals for public service. Creative environmental management has involved training eco dogs to sniff for the scat of endangered species so as to understand the location of their habitats and any disease or diet changes (Castaldo, 2014). Rats and moths can be utilized to sniff out explosives in public places (Myrick & Baker, 2010).

47The presence of animals has been found to have a consistently positive impact on human mental health, including a reduction in feelings of loneliness, depression, worry, and irritability, and increased feelings of calmness (Brooks et al., 2018). Individuals with schizophrenia in psychiatric facilities are said to be more comfortable with animals than with people (Akhtar & Brown, 2014). Dogs and cats are assigned to help abused children and accident victims to get through their trauma (Shepard, 1996). The palpable mental health benefits are why dogs, cats, and Shetland ponies have been increasingly asked to cheer up hospital patients and nursing home residents (Escoll, 2014). Because dogs are a naturally soothing presence, programs teaching inmates how to be dog trainers have been implemented in nearly 300 correctional institutions in the United States. Their positive interactions with dogs lead the participants to commit fewer infractions while incarcerated and the program significantly reduces the incidence of recidivism (Earl, 2017; Flynn et al., 2019).


48An essential purpose in developing any public policy category is to “produce coherence and restore order in a chaotic world of actions and public tools” (Zittoun, 2014, .p 77). Policies are interrelated, but there is a virtue in ordering them into distinct domains. Policy analysis is more focused and governance is potentially legitimated by decisions arising from an ordered framework (Zittoun, 2014). A move toward animal policy enriches the policy studies field because it serves to increase knowledge about the political aspects of the human-animal relationship. It expands the scope of the public in public policy to match the reality that other species are a part of public affairs.

49The establishment of animal policy as a distinct domain gives way to a grounded discourse on how animals are represented in the policy process. Instead of viewing the extent to which animals are commodities in agricultural sciences, or a subset of environmental regulations, a policy orientation shifts the focus to how animals are represented in the definition of problems and in the formulation and implementation of solutions. Studies can be done on the types of governments that adopt different animal policy strategies and programs. The laws that respond to animal cruelty can be juxtaposed with programs that protect endangered species. Research can look into the scope of animal policy advocacy, measuring trends over time and describing current practices. Actor-network theory can be applied to the human-animal relationship. Animal impact assessment can be employed in the same manner as environmental impact studies. By accounting for the different dimensions of animal policy, descriptive and prescriptive information can be developed to support policymaking, which is one of the essential purposes of the policy sciences (Asher, 1986).

50A policy orientation establishes the parameters that make up the discourse on the human-animal experience in politics and culture. Because it is impossible to represent voiceless individual species that number in the millions, what can be given to animals is the right to discursive representation (Dryzek & Niemeyer, 2008). The animal policy discourse can be understood as continuous deliberation about the assumptions, judgments, contentions, dispositions, and capabilities of the three animal perspectives—anthropocentrism, animal welfare, and natural rights. This is a dialogue that is already occurring, missing only the structure of policy research.

51The treatment of feral cats is one example of how a policy dialogue has reconciled competing ideas about animals (Winograd, 2009). The overpopulation of feral cats is a problem for many jurisdictions because they have the potential to be vectors for disease and they kill other species, most notably birds. The traditional anthropocentric way to deal with feral cats has been to round them up and euthanize them. The animal welfare approach is to collect the cats, keep them in no-kill shelters, and then place them in homes. The natural rights solution is referred to as trap, neuter, and return (TNR). Emerging from a policy discourse among conservation biologists, animal advocates, and locally elected officials, a TNR initiative involves capturing the animals, surgically sterilizing them, and then returning them to the environment where they were found so that they live out their lives naturally (Hunter & Brisbin, Jr., 2016). Ten years of TNR in Rome resulted in a 16-32 percent decrease in feral cat populations (Longcore et al., 2008). The effect of TNR is to satisfy the anthropocentric need to control out-of-control cat populations, the animal welfare desire to protect cats from harm, and the natural rights position that felines should be left to lives their lives freely.

52If the past is prologue, the future portends a world of change for the interactions between humans, the physical environment, and other species. Sustainability necessarily involves other species as much as it does the climate and natural landscapes. The examination and discussion of animal policy can help to inform an impending milieu by bringing out through scholarship the advantages and disadvantages of various animal-related ideas, laws, rules, and programs. To state the obvious, the shape of animal policy will shape the future of life on earth.

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Bibliographical reference

Jerry Mitchell, Sorting Out Animal Policy: Ideas, Problems, and SolutionsInternational Review of Public Policy, 4:3 | 2022, 340-355.

Electronic reference

Jerry Mitchell, Sorting Out Animal Policy: Ideas, Problems, and SolutionsInternational Review of Public Policy [Online], 4:3 | 2022, Online since 01 March 2022, connection on 23 July 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jerry Mitchell

Baruch College, The City University of New York, USA

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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