Animal Law for Social Justice: A Conversation with Pamela Hart and Megan Senatori

A color illustration of a donkey causing a commotion in an ornate English courtroom full of people in fine clothes.

Few realize that U.S. law regards all animals as property. That legal designation, “property” as opposed to “persons,” limits the protections available to animals under the law. This can make humans vulnerable, too, as in cases of domestic abuse when batterers target pets as another way of exercising power and control. Thanks to the work of advocates, there have been some recent transformations in animal law that aim to address this legal disparity and its consequences.

In celebration of International Animal Rights Day, I discussed the current state of animal law with attorneys Pamela Hart and Megan Senatori, founders of Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV). Megan and Pam talked with me about the advancements in legal protections for animals, such as the ability to include pets in restraining orders. In addition, they talked about how their mutual devotion to animals led them to establish the SAAV program, which works to enable victims of domestic abuse to leave an abusive partner and provide safety for their animals.

Stream or download my conversation with Hart and Senatori here. Interview highlights follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah S. Richerson: What are some of the joys of animal law?

Pamela Hart: For me, it’s seeing this next generation of animal advocates—whether they’re law students or attorneys or anyone who cares about animals. We’re seeing our laws catching up to how we as a society view animals and recognizing the strong bond between humans and animals. So I really find tremendous joy and satisfaction seeing how many people are committed to this social justice movement.

Megan Senatori: It’s so inspiring just that there is a term people know: animal law. When Pam and I met in law school and shared this passion for trying to help animals through our law degrees, people didn’t know what we were talking about. There really wasn’t an animal law per se. When I wanted to write an article about this topic as a law student the closest thing that I could find that was analogous was the Environmental Law Review. So I wrote an article about animal activism for that audience, paralleling the environmental law movement with the animal protection movement, because there just wasn’t really another place for it.

Two women smile at the camera while sitting in front of a green hillside.

Attorneys Pamela Hart (left) and Megan Senatori. Photo courtesy of Megan Senatori, 2010.

HR: We often hear the terms animal welfare and animal rights. Can you explain the difference between the two?

PH: Generally speaking, animal rights typically means that animals are not ours to use for anything, whether it be food, clothing, entertainment, or to experiment on. In contrast, animal welfare allows these uses as long as they are considered humane and certain guidelines are followed. These are societal concepts that then are applied to the law. Animal law is a combination of statutory and case law in which the nature—whether it’s legal, social, or biological—of non-human animals is an important factor. We see this across the board with companion animals, wildlife, and animals used in entertainment.

HR: What are some of the quirkiest dimensions of animal law?

PH: It might be less quirky than frustrating and challenging, but there’s the issue that animals are considered property. That means that they lack fundamental legal protections. You can contrast this to corporations and ships, who are legally classified as persons and enjoy the benefits of personhood, which means they can sue and be sued. That comes to mind as the biggest oddity about the law when we are talking about animals that feel pain, joy, have family bonds, and science is proving are sentient beings.

MS: A quirky thing about how we value animals in our legal system is that it depends on the type of animal and what their use and value is to us as humans. You can take one fact pattern where the animal at issue might be a dog and then take that same fact pattern where it’s a pig, and you could have completely different outcomes.

PH: Yes, our law not only differs depending on species but also depending on context. A dog who’s living in my home is going to enjoy a far more protection than a dog that’s being used in medical research.

MS: A dog that lives in Pam’s home has hit the lottery.

HR: We’re recording this podcast to mark the occasion of International Animal Rights Day. How do animal rights factor into your work specifically?

PH: Well as an animal lover and as an attorney, I believe that the law provides a unique opportunity for myself and anyone else who is interested in this area to merge their passion with their profession by utilizing the legal system to protect animals’ lives and advance their interests.

MS: I would say the same. From an animal protection standpoint, I’m not somebody who likes the buckets that the movement puts you into, either rights or welfare. I think we have obligations and duties to animals that are moral and ethical, and there should be more legal obligations. So I’m glad that there’s an International Animal Rights Day. We could call it an International Kindness to Animals Day, as long as we make sure that as a society we are recognizing that we have duties to animals.

A little white dog wearing glasses peeks out from above an open copy of an animal law legal casebook, with five books held up by bookends and a framed diploma in the background.

Pamela Hart is the co-author of a new legal case book on incorporating animal law into traditional law curricula. Photo from the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

HR: Pam, you recently published book about animal law. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

PH: The name of the book is Animal Law—New Perspectives on Teaching Traditional Law (Carolina Academic Press, 2017). I co-authored it with Joyce Tischler, Kathy Hessler, and Sonia Waisman. What we wanted to do was write a legal case book that we could offer to law professors, so they could have a turnkey approach to incorporating animal law into their existing coursework. We’re trying to make it as easy and seamless as possible because there is a high demand from law students to have animal law issues addressed throughout the spectrum of the curriculum.

HR: You two co-founded Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) in 2001, and Megan currently serves as its president. What is SAAV’s mission and how does it fit into your legal background?

PH: SAAV is an all-volunteer nonprofit organization that focuses on the cycle of abuse between domestic violence and animal cruelty. In particular, when domestic abuse victims try to seek safety from a batterer we provide safe refuge for their pets. Research documents that animal cruelty is very common in homes where there is domestic violence, child abuse, or other types of family violence. I’ve heard statistics that say 48 percent or more of victims delay seeking safety for themselves because they didn’t have anywhere safe to take their pet. So we’re trying to remove a barrier to safety for specific victims and then reunite them with their pet at the end of the shelter period. We’re also trying to get people to recognize that when there’s violence in the home—whether it’s to an animal or a person—we’re all connected.

MS: In addition, we also provide educational resources to anybody who may be interested in starting a safe haven program in their own communities.

PH: Since we founded the organization in 2001, we’ve had over 350 animals go through the program—dogs, cats, farm animals, birds, snakes, and even a hamster named Faith.

A greyscale image of a woman's head and a dog's head, both facing down from the top of the the image, lying close together on a blanket with the letters S. A. A. V. each superimposed in white against pink icons of houses. Underneath the logo it reads "Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims" with the words "Celebrating 15 years" in a blue heart above them.

Pamela Hart and Megan Senatori co-founded Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) in 2001.

HR: Why would someone in a domestic abuse situation ever target an animal?

MS: Domestic abuse really is one person exercising power and control over another person. That’s done in a wide variety of ways. It’s not always just violence. It can be threats of violence, and sometimes those threats are also targeted at what the victim loves. So that may be a pet. It can be actually carrying out the threat—so injuring or killing a pet—to convince the victim to be silent and not tell anyone about the abuse, to convince the victim to keep secrets, to scare the victim into staying.

That is a real tactic that unfortunately works because research bears out the victims don’t leave because they don’t have a safe place for their animals. It’s also very symbolic: it’s the batterer or abuser showing the person I can do this to an animal. Think of what I could do to you. Batterers use animals as tools or weapons in the abuse of their human victims.

HR: How does the law help victims of domestic violence and their pets? Are there laws in place?

MS: That is an example of another area where the law is catching up, and it’s been impressive, though there’s still work to do. One of the most important laws to help domestic abuse victims with pets is that when they go to get a restraining order against a batterer that they can include their pets in those restraining orders. The first state in the nation that had a law like that was Maine in 2006. In 2018 we now have I believe 36, maybe 37, that now allow courts to include pets in domestic abuse restraining orders.

That’s huge, because it recognizes that pets are part of the cycle of abuse. It helps the victim so that she can make sure the batterer is, at least legally, restrained from targeting the pet when the victim leaves. And it really is important to helping victims achieve safety. So that is one really important law, which shows the growth that’s happened so quickly in this area.

Featured image: “The Trial of Bill Burns Under Martin’s Act” (1838) painted by Charles Hunt after the original by P. Mathews, depicts the first prosecution under an 1822 British animal cruelty law. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Pamela Hart is the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS). She has an extensive background in animal law including helping to launch CALS as a collaboration between Lewis & Clark Law School and Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) in 2008. Prior to joining CALS, Pamela oversaw ALDF’s programs dedicated to the development of animal law in academia and legal practice. Additionally, she was the first Lecturer of Animal Law at the University of Chicago Law School and co-taught the first animal law course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. While in law school, she cofounded Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV), a nonprofit animal protection organization dedicated to recognizing the role of animals in family violence. Pamela is a frequent writer and speaker on animal law related issues, including co-authoring Animal Law – New Perspectives on Teaching Traditional Law, a legal casebook published by Carolina Academic Press. Contact.

Megan Senatori co-founded Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV) with Pamela Hart in 2001. Megan is SAAV’s President and oversees SAAV’s shelter program for the pets of domestic abuse victims. She is a frequent author and speaker on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. She annually trains humane officers on animal cruelty and civil animal laws for their certification by the State of Wisconsin. She regularly works with veterinarians on the link between domestic violence and animal cruelty. Outside of her volunteer work, Megan is a full-time law partner in private practice handling a wide variety of civil litigation for individuals and businesses on business and commercial legal matters. Contact.

Hannah S. Richerson is a dual degree-seeking student in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the University of Wisconsin Law School. Hannah is pursuing a Ph.D. in Environment and Resources and a J.D. with emphases in animal and environmental law. In addition, she is a teaching assistant in the Department of Integrative Biology and serves as president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund student chapter and Vice-President of the Environmental Law Society. Contact.