USA: 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.”

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.”