New thinking about animals and the law, from Assistant Professor Jessica Eisen of the Faculty of Law, is the basis of an episode of the popular CBC Radio program Ideas.
Airing March 22, the documentary explores the public’s dual discomfort with seeing some animals suffer because of industrial agricultural practices, and the lack of a shared legal or cultural language for having a productive conversation about those concerns.
“I hope this show will give a non-academic audience the opportunity to think about whether and how they can reconcile what they know about industrial animal farming with their own ideas of justice and fairness,” said Eisen.
The episode was created for Ideas From the Trenches, a regular feature of Ideas that highlights doctoral research for a lay audience.
Among the questions Eisen’s research poses, is the cost to society of controlling everything in the lives of farm animals that are at the heart of our economic system but who are often overlooked by the law, she said.
“Their social lives, their sexual interactions, their connections with their own offspring, are all governed in the interest of production efficiency,” said Eisen, specifically referencing the dairy cattle that are at the centre of her research.
“We have to build bridges between our knowledge that these are thinking, feeling creatures, and the project of crafting laws and policies that respond to their experiences — especially when we know they are experiencing pain and suffering.”
Eisen’s research on dairy cows forms part of the doctoral thesis she will defend at Harvard Law School in April. One of its chapters, “Milked: Nature, Necessity and American Law,” will be a forthcoming article in the Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law and Justice.
Eisen was involved in the production of the documentary, explaining her research and responding to views of other interviewees (including Anita Kranjc, the Ontario activist charged with mischief for giving water to slaughter-bound pigs; American legal scholar Steven Wise, who argues that chimpanzees should be recognized as legal “persons” with rights; and University of Victoria professor Maneesha Deckha, who believes animals should have alternative legal status). But she didn't have final say on the program’s content.
It’s a new challenge, she said, to explain a complicated topic in a comprehensible but not simplistic discussion, while trusting others with its overall shape. Yet she believes it’s important that humanities and social science theorists ensure their research is relevant and responsive to real-world problems.
“Instead of asking in the abstract, ‘How does a cow compare to a human,’ or, ‘Is a chimp a legal person?’ we can focus on actual practices of animal use. We can ask, ‘What are we doing and why? How are we causing harm? How can we do better?’ These are challenging questions that are not going to be solved with philosophy alone. Law and policy have critical roles to play.”
Ideas airs on CBC Radio One, weekdays at 9 p.m. and Mondays at 3 p.m.
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