Gregory Oschwald's grandfather rarely came home from his daily job with stories or colorful anecdotes about the work he did, but the teenager from rural Minnesota soon discovered the hard life of a slaughterhouse employee.
Only a few blocks from his grandparents' home, every night Oschwald visited, he witnessed tractor-trailers rolling in to the processing plant where his grandfather worked, filled to the brim with turkeys waiting for slaughter. Crammed into cages six at a time for hours, often overnight, the turkeys had no access to food or water, and in the last hours of their lives couldn't spread their wings, perch, bathe, scratch and even walk on solid ground -- their most basic behaviors.
"Quite simply, these birds were sentenced to a life of misery," Oschwald said. "Seeing them treated with such disregard caused me at an early age to question our society's use of animals."
Joining a Minnesota-based animal protection organization after college, Oschwald eventually recognized the courts remained the most effective method to change conditions for the turkeys and other cruelly processed animals. He enrolled at Yale Law School to find a way to use the law to protect farm animals and eventually helped revolutionize Yale by re-introducing the concept of animal law to the campus.
"It's an exciting time to be involved in animal law," Oschwald said. Until only about 20 years ago, the law did not consider animals a protected group, and lumped legislation regarding them within the traditional fields of torts, contract, criminal and constitutional law. But with the rise of the animal protection movement, more and more American Bar Association-accredited law schools, including Harvard, Columbia and New York universities, now offer courses in animal law, realizing the need to fill a demand in the field.
Yale has somewhat followed suit, hosting a symposium, providing space for study groups and offering a one-credit course in animal rights law. Animal rights enthusiasts at Yale Law School met this past weekend at Reblaw, the 14th annual rebellious lawyering conference that offered a variety of panels including "Animal Rights and Animal Wrongs."
"Although interest in animal law as a discrete field of law is relatively recent, animals have probably been a subject of the law for as long as there has been law," said Jennifer Sorenson, who, with Oschwald, revived the Yale chapter of the Animal Legal Defense Fund last year, then co-founded the weekly one-credit Animal Law Reading Group, which kick-started animal law activity at Yale. "But an enduring problem confronting those who wanted to protect animals was the question of judicial standing -- to bring a case a plaintiff must show she has suffered a cognizable injury. This makes it difficult for people to bring cases on behalf of animals because it is usually the animal -- not the person bringing the case -- who has suffered the injury. Many, many cases have been thrown out on these grounds."