September Book of the Month: ‘Beyond Cages: Animal Law and Criminal Punishment’ by Justin Marceau

Justin Marceau’s ground-breaking work challenges a widely held belief within the animal protection movement: that more severe criminal punishments against animal abusers advance protections for animals. The book persuasively argues that the movement should pause to consider whether these efforts to implement tougher sentences for animal abuse are in fact effective, or morally justifiable.

Marceau reflects on the animal protection movement in the United States by considering the work of animal advocates to alongside other struggles for social justice. In doing so, the author highlights issues with a movement that simultaneously calls for greater empathy and compassion, while also aligning itself with a criminal justice system that has been shown to marginalise already disadvantaged communities. The author refers to a substantial body of research about the criminal justice system’s ineffectiveness in addressing rates of offending and recidivism. Looking at the efficacy of other ‘tough on crime’ movements such as the war on drugs, Marceau argues that longer sentences may have little impact on reducing animal abuse. He writes “the pursuit of tough-on-crime policies may leave the animal movement in the position of chasing its own tail, because incarceration and criminalization threaten to further entrench the class and socioeconomic dynamics that are at least partially to blame for the abuse of innocent animals.”

Marceau questions whether the push for greater sentences is truly driven by the desire to protect animals. In unpacking this issue, he outlines how leading animal protection organisations are reluctant to become aligned with acts of civil disobedience, allying instead with law enforcement. He notes that prominent animal protection groups have not sought to defend actions by groups liberating animals from factory farms, where such action may arguably immediately address the suffering of animals. Marceau cites a number of cases where instead animal protection groups have urged the court to adopt narrow constructions of constitutional amendments that limit police or prosecutorial behaviour. Such an approach by the courts could severely impede those engaging in direct action, and it leads the author to question whether the objective of these organisations is filling the jails, as opposed to lessening animal suffering and seeking societal change.

In considering animal abuse felonies, Marceau discusses the “single biggest loophole in state cruelty codes”: the exemption for agricultural cruelty. The animal protection movement has been criticised for prioritising the creation of felonies for animal abuse over addressing cruel farming practices. Agricultural animals are routinely abused, but such actions are exempt from prosecution; it’s considered ‘normal’ or ‘customary’ for the industry. Marceau explains how the reforms that created or expanded felony cruelty law carved out exemptions for farm animals. Thus, the animal protection movement did, to an extent, become complicit in safeguarding agribusiness from laws that could hold them accountable for cruelty.

Where the law does provide protections of animals in cases of abuse on factory farms, Marceau considers how the law’s approach is also fraught with problems: “although prosecutions inside the factory farm are rare, those that do occur highlight an unmistakable element of race and class that permeates these prosecutions.” Marceau asks whether the law should move from prosecuting discrete acts of abuse to address more systemic suffering. Several examples show that low level employees, on minimum wage and often from minority groups, are far more likely to face such prosecutions than ‘front office’ employees and management. When such cases arise, little consideration is given to the moral issue at the heart of factory farming; instead, all of the suffering is blamed on a lack of morals amongst the low level workers. The overriding message of the book is that greater punishments and more prosecutions will not address the underlying cruelty of commercial farming.

This book radically challenges traditional ideas about animal protection, and indeed it poses some very controversial arguments. Some may argue that criminal law has played a crucial role in addressing animal abuse, and that in a society where it is difficult to gain protections for animals, abandoning the tools that are available to us would be unwise. The final chapters of the book consider, and respond to, likely criticisms. Marceau accepts that there is no silver bullet but that in our efforts to reduce animal suffering, advocates may want to approach the issue of abuse with a more careful and searching enquiry into how to achieve change.

Book review by Michelle Strauss. You can purchase the book here

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