Animal Rights and the Victimhood Trap

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. Framing crime victim advocacy as an engine of social change is a topic of import for many modern animal lawyers, but the idea of victimhood as a tool for progressive social change is no more original than it is politically neutral.

This Article examines the work of a notable segment of the animal-law field, which has prioritized law and policy achievements that recognize animals as victims of crime. On the one hand, animals are unquestionably victims. They endure considerable suffering at the hands of humans, and civil liability or non-carceral recognition of this victimhood is a distinct topic. The question this Article takes up, by contrast, is whether the crime victims’ rights framing—imbued as it is with the rhetoric and logics of a tough-on-crime movement—represents a material gain for animals. Is the victims’ rights turn in animal law exclusively or primarily rhetorical or expressive, or are there concrete, measurable gains for animals? This Article situates the animal rights movement’s crime-victim efforts within broader conversations about how victims’ rights narratives advance or impede social change, and provides a detailed examination of what victims’ rights advocacy for animals has meant for animals to date. The point is not that the “victim” label is always injurious to efforts to advance the standing of animals in law. Rather, the claim is that pursuing a victims’ rights agenda in animal law is not as unique as is often imagined, and the socio-legal and political history of crime victim advocacy outside of the animal realm must be taken into consideration. On this question, animal lawyers have much to teach other areas of law, and perhaps even more to learn about whether crime victim advocacy is more a trap than a panacea.