Kristen Stilt on the intersection of animals, law, and religion

Kristen Stilt head shot

Professor Kristen Stilt

Professor Kristen Stilt, a Director of the Islamic Legal Studies Program, also focuses on animal law in her scholarship. She runs the new Animal Law & Policy Program, is teaching a course on Animal Law in the spring semester, and is planning a workshop on the intersection of animals, law, and religion. During a recent conversation, she spoke about the connection between animal law and Islamic law, and the impact of animal law on both animals and people.

What sparked your interest in animal law?

I was living in Cairo for my Ph.D. research. In America, you can avoid animal issues because they more or less take place behind closed doors. But in Egypt, it’s front and center. Everything from dogs on the street to donkeys pulling carts to slaughter at certain times of year—it is all out in the open. So I looked for an organization to volunteer with and found a group of Egyptians who were just starting the first animal protection organization. That was really the beginning of my interest in animal work and I have been working with them ever since—they are an amazing group of people. Later, it became an academic interest as well and I am now writing in this area of the law.

How has the field of animal law brought change to the lives of animals?

I think it’s been quite substantial. There are efforts now to put the most progressive set of protections for farmed animals on the ballot in Massachusetts. There are important cases in New York trying to free primates from captive situations. I think the animal issue is now on the national agenda—this is the animal moment. There’s been a huge burgeoning of interest in part generated by the legal field, in part generated by consumer demands and awareness.

How do students benefit by studying animal law?

One way is just to show them the failure of law. They are quite surprised when they realize how little law there is for the treatment of animals in the food supply, and that there’s almost nothing that governs how they’re treated when they’re being raised. The rules about the slaughter process are also pretty thin. We imagine that this area must be highly regulated because it’s our food, and there’s billions of sentient beings pushed through factory farms into the slaughterhouses every year, but really there’s very little. I also think it exposes them to so many different types of lawmaking alongside ways that consumer pressure can also bring about real change. It also offers them the opportunity to think critically about issues of standing. Many of the laws that seem to protect animals require a human to be injured in order to satisfy standing. So thinking strategically about how you build a case when you have this challenge is quite interesting for students.

Would a human’s emotional distress matter in a case involving animals?


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There’s a great recent Texas Supreme Court case where, due to negligence, a family dog was killed. The family was devastated. This is the issue: What is the value of that family dog? We would think emotional distress and emotional damages would be included. But they aren’t—the court affirms that the dog is merely property, while also expressing discomfort with this conclusion. There are lots of ways in which we feel uncomfortable with the property status of animals—it no longer feels right—and yet we don’t have a clear idea of what new way the law might treat animals.

Has the animal-law movement spread to other countries around the world?

Absolutely. In fact, we can say it started outside of America and came here later. By the Colonial period there were anti-cruelty laws on the books. If we think about where it began, some of these much older societies and religions have been paying attention to animals for a long time. Islam has a long history of that, and Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism also have extensive rules for animals. In many ways, we’re the latecomers. But we’re also by no means the world’s leader now. We’re way behind Europe in terms of protections for animals.

As an Islamic law scholar also, can you talk about how Islamic law considers the rights of animals?

The Islamic tradition has long paid attention to animals. You might think some of the rules about slaughter are just for human benefit, but there’s strong evidence in the Islamic tradition and Islamic law that the rules were for the animals themselves, such as rules prohibiting the overburdening of pack animals like horses and donkeys. There are also rules about slaughter that are probably for the animals’ benefit: don’t drag an animal to slaughter and don’t slaughter one animal in front of another.

You’ve written about the poor treatment of animals in Egypt, particularly of dogs. Why does this happen considering the Islamic tradition you spoke about?

Not every area of Islamic law is clear. There are a lot of issues surrounding the status of the dog. It’s wrong to be cruel, but there are other teachings that say, for example, that dogs are impure and that you shouldn’t have them at home. Some people take these to even justify violence against dogs. Islamic law in this area is very complicated and sometimes a simplified message gets understood by the population that dogs are dirty and impure and so it’s acceptable to be cruel to them.

What role do animals play in your own life?

I feel compassionate towards animals—human and non-human—who can’t advocate for themselves. Animals are completely dependent on us. I have done a lot of rescue work in Egypt and have pulled cats and dogs off the streets in terrible conditions. Of those rescues, I adopted a dog and two cats, who live with us here in Cambridge.