News & Politics

This GW Law Program Aims to Strengthen Animal Rights

Inside the Animal Legal Education Initiative

Animal lawyer Kathy Hessler was vegetarian until 1988, when a PETA booth on the National Mall convinced her that dairy cows are often mistreated. “I thought I had already made a good decision to become vegetarian, but I was still complicit without realizing,” she says. That experience made her go vegan. “I was sort of stunned at what I didn’t know.”

Kathy Hessler is the director of the Animal Legal Education Initiative at George Washington University Law School. Photograph courtesy of GW Law School.

Now director of the Animal Legal Education Initiative, which launched at George Washington University’s law school in March, Hessler has made spreading knowledge her mission—particularly as it relates to animal-welfare laws. While animal law is something of a backwater in the legal profession (not many schools offer animal-law classes, let alone a whole program), the Animal Legal Education Initiative aims to make it a core discipline. To do so, the faculty is creating a curriculum that can be rolled out at other schools, evangelizing the relevance of animal law to other legal fields—environmental law, healthcare law, property torts, etc.—and advocating for a better regulatory framework for animals.

Hessler, who grew up in Massachusetts and New Jersey and went to GW as an undergrad, is concerned with the treatment of “unseen” animals: the kind that don’t live in our homes. She wants to “elevate animals to the level of visibility” so that our society can make informed decisions about how to treat them. Rather than criticizing individual carnivores or scientists or factory farmers, Hessler takes aim at oppressive systems. “People are rational actors,” she says, “so let’s talk about why they’re doing what they’re doing, and let’s try to change the calculus that they’re using.”

The best way to accomplish that, Hessler believes, is by strengthening the laws. Our nation’s current animal-welfare laws are piecemeal—the Animal Welfare Act, for instance, is riddled with industry carve-outs (lab rats aren’t considered animals, for one). In addition, animals are generally deemed property, making them difficult to protect.

Bolstering the law would clearly benefit animals—but Hessler insists it’s a boon to humanity, too. Animal welfare and human welfare are intertwined; agricultural animals fuel climate change, for example, and most emerging viruses (including the coronavirus, HIV, and Ebola) come from animal sources. “If we’re not regulating the use and abuse of animals, we’re going to have these outcomes,” she says. “Even if you don’t care about animals, the way we treat them affects you.”

This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer