Animal Welfare: An Overview


Laws governing the treatment of animals in the United States began to emerge, mostly at the state level, in the mid to late 1800’s. New York passed the first law concerning the treatment of animals in 1867. The law was spearheaded by the state organization of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and became a template that would be followed by other states into the next century.  Even today, the majority of animal cruelty laws are enacted and offenses prosecuted on the state level.  State animal cruelty laws, while similar, have many significant differences which necessitates a close reading of each state statute.

On the federal level, the first statute concerning the treatment of animals was the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The AWA was initially passed in 1966 to prevent pets from being stolen for sale to research laboratories, and to improve the treatment and well-being of animals intended for research.  Since the initial passage of the AWA, it has been amended six times with the latest change occurring in 2007.  Under the AWA, businesses and others with animals covered by the law must be licensed or registered, and they must adhere to minimum standards of care.

Farm animals are among those not covered by the act, which nonetheless provides a broad set of statutory protections for animals. At the state level, laws to prevent deliberate animal cruelty sometimes apply to farm animals, but few states have prescribed on-farm treatment standards. However, there are some exception. For example, nine states have outlawed gestation creates including Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Ohio, Oregon, and Rhode Island. Some states have gone a step further such as California, where voters chose to require all hens be cage-free by the November 2018 election.

Major Federal Statutes

Animal Health and Disease Research Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 3191-3202

The Animal Health and Disease Research Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 3191-3202, is designed to promote “the improved health and productivity of domestic livestock, poultry, aquatic animals, and other income-producing animals which are essential to the Nation’s food supply . . . .” It was amended in 1990 to require the Secretary of Agriculture to commission the National Academy of Sciences “to conduct a study of the delivery system utilized to provide farmers . . . and ranchers with animal care and veterinary medical services, including animal drugs.” The study shall assess opportunities to, among other things, “advance the well-being and treatment of farm animals.”

Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 2131-2159

The AWA, as discussed above, was the first federal statute passed dealing directly with animal welfare issues.  The statute allows the Secretary of Agriculture to “promulgate standards to govern the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals by dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors.”   Such standards must include requirements “for animal care, treatment, and practices in experimental procedures to ensure that animal pain and distress are minimized . . .”  The Act also requires every research facility to establish an Institutional Animal Committee of at least three members, at least one of whom shall not be affiliated in any way with the facility and who is intended to represent “general community interests in the proper care and treatment of animals.” The Committee’s responsibilities include reviewing practices involving pain to animals and filing a report with the Secretary.

Horse Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1821-1831

This statute makes it a crime to exhibit, or transport for the purpose of exhibition, any “sore” horse, which is a horse whose feet have been injured in order to alter the horse’s gait. The Secretary of Agriculture is authorized with enforcement power.

Humane Slaughter Act, 7 U.S.C. §§ 1901-1906

The Humane Slaughter Act is enforced by the Secretary of Agriculture under provisions of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, 21 U.S.C. §§ 603(b).  The central provision of this statute outlines the methods of slaughter that are deemed to be “humane,” and thus appropriate for use in slaughtering livestock.  While poultry are excluded from the provisions of this act, their slaughter is governed by the Poultry Products Inspection Act, 21 U.S.C.A. § 451 – 472.  The PPIA and accompanying regulations require that poultry be slaughtered using “good commercial practices,” and give FSIS the authority to govern those practices.

Lacey Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 41-47

This statute protects wild animals, birds and fish from injury to themselves or their nests.  It also allows the Secretary of the Interior to establish a list of creatures deemed to be injurious, and prohibits the importation of any animals, birds, fish, amphibians, or reptiles on the list.  Finally, the statute includes provisions on hunting from aircraft on public land.

The 1981 amendments to the Act, 16 U.S.C. §§  3371-3378, make it unlawful to engage in commerce in any fish or wildlife or plant taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any treaty, or any federal or state law or regulation, or any Indian tribal law.

Migratory Bird Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 715-715s

This statute authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to purchase or rent such areas as have been approved for purchase or rental by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission “which he determines to be suitable for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose, for migratory birds.”

Twenty-Eight Hour Law, 49 U.S.C. § 80502

This statute was first enacted in 1906 and repealed and reenacted in amended form in 1994 by Public Law No. 103-272. It is also known as the “Cruelty to Animals Act,” the “Live Stock Transportation Act,” and the “Food and Rest Law.” As amended in 1994, it provides that “a rail carrier, express carrier, or common carrier (except by air or water), a receiver, trustee, or lessee of one of those carriers, or an owner or master of a vessel transporting animals” across state lines, “may not confine animals in a vehicle or vessel for more than 28 consecutive hours without unloading the animals for feeding, water, and rest.”  It also provides that “[a]nimals being transported shall be unloaded in a humane way into pens equipped for feeding, water, and rest for at least 5 consecutive hours.” The statute “does not apply when animals are transported in a vehicle or vessel in which the animals have food, water, space, and an opportunity for rest.”

The 28-hour period, however, is subject to the several exceptions, allowing extra confinement for sheep under certain conditions, and for all animals if the animals cannot be unloaded because of accidental or unavoidable causes that could not have been anticipated or avoided when being careful, and when the owner or person having custody of the animals requests that the period be extended to 36 hours.  Violation of this statute allows the Attorney General to bring a civil action against the violator, and the penalty is a fine of between $100 and $500 for each violation.

Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1331-1340

This statute makes it a crime, with respect to any wild free-roaming horse or burro, to: (1) remove it from the public lands without authority from the Secretary of the Interior or Agriculture (depending on the public land), (2) convert it to private use, without authority from the Secretary, (3) maliciously cause its death or harassment, (4) process its remains into commercial products, or (5) sell it if it is maintained on private or leased land.