The emergence of animal law in Europe: observations from the front row

By Visa Kurki

I became interested in animal law around 2010. I had already been interested in animal ethics and philosophy for a while, but I didn’t see the connection to my law studies. However, I came to realize gradually that animal law is actually a thing of its own. As a law student, you are mostly taught traditional areas of law such as contract law, constitutional law and so on. Going outside of these classical topics is not easy – unless you have a role model. Thankfully I had one: Birgitta Wahlberg was active at my undergraduate university, Åbo Akademi University. That’s how I ended up writing my LL.B. thesis on Finnish animal welfare law.  

Animal ethics is occasionally understood in terms two alternatives: the moderate animal welfare position and the radical animal rights position. Back in 2010, this bifurcation was reflected in animal law as well. To exaggerate somewhat, you had two options: you could either look at the details of the animal welfare legislation, or engage in idealistic and utopian research on animal rights. In other words, the alternatives were black-letter research de lege lata and theoretical research de lege ferenda. Furthermore, the literature was dominated by Anglo-American approaches, such as the abolitionist approach pioneered by Gary Francione and the approach to animal rights litigation championed by Steven Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project. 

However, I didn’t feel at home with either of these alternatives. I wanted to understand the theory behind the lex lata – our existing law. I didn’t fully understand what many of our basic concepts meant. What do we mean when we say that the law prohibits inflicting “unnecessary suffering” to animals? I ended up writing my Bachelor’s thesis on the concept of unnecessary suffering in Finnish animal welfare law. During this time, I got interested in another fundamental question having to do with current animal welfare law: what does the adage that animals are legally “things” and “objects”, without rights, mean? I ended up writing my Master’s thesis on animal legal personhood. This got me interested in the topic of legal personhood more broadly, which ended up being the topic of my PhD dissertation, with the legal status of animals being merely one category of interest. 

After my PhD, I still felt we do not properly understand the legal status of animals. To address this gap, I started working on a research proposal. Together with Tero Kivinen, we managed to secure funding for the research project Animals under a Welfarist Regime (ANIWERE). The project seeks to produce a legal theory to explain the welfarist approach to animal protection that is prevalent in most Western countries.  

Even if the purpose of ANIWERE was originally somewhat more modest, a veritable animal law community has since grown in Helsinki. Last year, we organized an animal law conference. During the conference, I realized that Helsinki might be the largest European university in terms of the number of people working in animal law (prove me wrong!). To keep this community alive in the long term, we have recently established the Helsinki Animal Law Centre and our second animal law conference is taking place next week. As of now, the “Helsinki approach” appears to revolve around what was described above: a theoretical analysis of the foundations of current animal law. However, we are quite liberal in this regard, and welcome all sorts of approaches, be they normative or analytic. 

During my PhD, animal law was internationally still a relatively fringe topic, with no community to speak of, at least outside of North America. It was quite difficult to meet other people interested in the same questions. Online academic events were rather rare before the pandemic, so actual in-person meetings were much more important for the establishment of a community. This has also changed very drastically since; there are so many academic animal law events online, that I don’t have the time to attend all of them! 

Overall, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have a front row seat for witnessing the emergence of a European community of animal law scholars. I cannot wait to see how the discipline will evolve further. 








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