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Is Treating Abused Animals as Victims Good for the Animals?

A thoughtful essay asks if crime victim advocacy is more a trap than a panacea.

Two years ago, I posted a deeply thoughtful interview with Justin Marceau, professor of law at the Sturm College of Law at the University of Denver, called "Why Are Cages Bad for Nonhumans and OK for Humans?" I learned a lot from his interview and the book about which he was writing.

A few weeks ago, Justin published another thought-provoking and comprehensive piece that is a follow-up to some of his previous arguments called "Animal Rights and the Victimhood Trap." I carefully read this essay that's available online, and I'm thrilled that Justin could take the time to answer a few questions about this landmark work.1 Here's what he had to say.

Marc Bekoff: Why did you write "Animal Rights and the Victimhood Trap?"

JM: In 2019, I published my book Beyond Cages, which argues that the animal law focus on arrests, convictions, and longer sentences is not good for humans or animals. A number of interesting debates have emerged in the years following the book’s publication. One is the claim that I have undervalued the role of designating animals as victims of crime. Advocates often say that recognizing animals as victims will elevate their legal status and help society acknowledge their suffering.

I don’t disagree that animals are victimized. Animals are victims of human violence and indifference in countless ways, and the law should better respond to this mistreatment. In this essay, I describe the socio-legal and psychological components of the victimhood lens in animal punishment. I show that the label victim may be deployed in ways that amount to a purely symbolic or pyrrhic victory. It is a mistake to imagine that because some legislatures are only interested in “animal laws” that focus on convictions or longer sentences, such legislation is a victory. People might accuse me of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but I think the movement has conflated what is possible with what is good, and that is a serious mistake.

MB: How does your essay relate to your background and general areas of interest?

JM: I am an animal lawyer and a criminal law expert. This project surveys what the legal “victories” for animals as victims look like, and shows how this sort of reform may do more to harm than help animals. The vast majority of animal suffering is a product of systemic and legally sanctioned violence. Yet the victimhood legislation never targets this suffering, and instead is laser-focused on (appalling, but comparatively uncommon) companion animal abuse. I describe this as a sort of psychological displacement whereby well-meaning animal advocates direct legal attention away from corporate abuse and towards less powerful targets, such as individuals who through poverty or mental illness neglect or harm animals.

My point is certainly not that animal abuse is okay, or should be tolerated. It deserves, even requires opprobrium. But I point to the types of “victories” for animals as victims and illustrate the distracting impact of this advocacy. The public is taught that prosecuting a juvenile as an adult (and seeking imprisonment) is a critical step forward for animals. But does a dog who is abused want a teenager to go to prison, or does she rather want safety and companionship? Or does an injured animal find justice in the abstract concept championed by animals-as-victims efforts that would pursue more deportations for even relatively small acts of abuse? The idea that deterrence through deportation is part of a path to victory for animals is really quite odd.

MB: Who is your intended audience?

JM: My audience is anyone who thinks that through more convictions, more arrests, or longer sentences we bring justice to animals. The concept of justice is much less tidy than we often imagine, and understanding what it means for animals is no easy task. And to be sure, there is an intuition in many of us animal lovers that one who harms an animal should suffer, and maybe even go to jail or prison. But the idea that punishment reduces crime is increasingly at war with the data in criminal law. It is emerging as a fact of criminal law that incarceration does not reduce crime. And it is a myth to imagine that animal protection can be a big tent for advocates of social justice if we pursue tough on crime strategies; by doing so we impede the movement’s credibility and alienate social justice allies.

What if you learned that the states with the strongest animal abuse crimes and the most robust enforcement had the highest rates of animal crime? What if animal prosecutions don’t lead to less animal abuse? What if incarceration did not make people less violent and less inclined to harm animals or people? What would we do with this kind of knowledge? Surely we would not give up on the project of seeking to protect animals. But we might start to wonder about the need for creative interventions that are focused on keeping animals safe, rather than ensuring humans who transgress are punished.

MB: How does your paper differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

JM: This is a paper that is focused on what labeling animals as victims of crime has achieved. Victim is a term that is celebrated as politically neutral, and a tool for securing meaningful law reform from policymakers. But as I show, the concept of crime victims’ rights is anything but neutral, it is a highly politicized term that has a long history of justifying tough-on-crime policies. This is political theater, I worry, masquerading as animal rights work. I accept that victims' rights can mean different things to different people, and some such framings of the concept could be politically neutral. But as I show in detail in the article, a salient history of the term’s use in animal law (as in criminal law more generally) has been a connection between more robust criminal responses (such as prosecuting kids as adults or stacking charges) and animal protection.

This project breaks new ground by making the case that the victimhood focus tends to distract public attention from the most important sources of animal suffering.


In conversation with Justin Marceau.

1) For discussions of other topics focusing on animal law and the breadth of this discipline see: How Animal Law Applies to Many Areas of Mainstream Practice, Are Animals "Things?" The Evolution of Animal Law, Canine Science Shows Dogs Aren't Merely Unfeeling Property, and Should Wildlife Be Granted the Right to Own Their Homes? Concerning the ways in which animal law can inform many different areas, Marceau writes: "Legal academics recognize that as a general rule, there is no concept so novel and original that it is not a subset of some other well-established, preexisting academic debate. The legal questions that seem most pressing for one social movement are never entirely unique to that movement or that moment. In this sense, animal rights law has more to teach general legal fields than may seem obvious at first blush, and likewise animal lawyers have much more to learn from fields that predate and have nothing to do with animals than they might want to acknowledge."