MLaw student presented with Wanda Nash Award

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Michigan Law recent graduate Eli Massey notes that in most American animal law cases, animals are treated and described as property or things.

“But if you asked most people about their cat or dog, they’d say, ‘They’re a member of the family, not property.’ We all recognize animals are conscious creatures capable of experiencing pleasure and pain,” Massey says. “I think the law should recognize that too and not treat animals as property.”

In order to bring a lawsuit, he adds, you need standing, meaning a court recognizes you are a proper party to file a lawsuit. Massey cites the 1972 Sierra Club v. Morton case, in which Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote a famous dissent raising the possibility lawsuits can be filed on behalf of nature.

“At first blush, this suggestion seems silly. But corporations are considered legal persons, with constitutional and other rights, and can file lawsuits,” Massey says. “Ships are said to have legal personhood. Infants, who lack the cognitive capacity to consent to or understand legal proceedings can have lawsuits filed on their behalf. Even decedents can have lawsuits brought on their behalf, or on behalf of their estates.

“Animal standing doesn’t necessarily have to operate in the exact same way as a human standing. But when you survey the full spectrum of legal personhood and standing, it seems way less outrageous that animals should be entitled to legal protections and even rights vindicated through lawsuits brought on their behalf.”

Massey is one of two recipients of the annual Wanda A. Nash Award, recognizing a 3L law student at a Michigan law school for substantial contributions to animal law.  “I'm extremely honored and grateful to the State Bar of Michigan Animal Law Section for this recognition,” he says. “By all accounts, Wanda Nash was an incredibly warm and loving person who was very passionate about animal rights. Furthermore, she was a visionary in pursuing animal law so many years ago and chairing the first animal law section of a state bar organization in the country.”

According to Massey, animal liberation is one of the defining issues of our time.

“Billions of animals are killed each year for food in the United States alone, frequently in the most cruel and depraved ways you can imagine. If the scale of that suffering wasn't already difficult enough to wrap your brain around, many more animals are tortured and subjected to a dizzying variety of—often—legalized barbarism in labs, farms, and elsewhere,” he says.

“In the face of this system of mass industrial slaughter, built on the suffering and death of billions of creatures, most people go about their lives as if there weren't unfathomable atrocities unfolding every day. It can sometimes make me feel like I'm crazy. But there are many instances of societies perpetrating horrible crimes then years later concluding that what they did was wrong.

“I think my passion for animal liberation is rooted in this fundamental sense that what we do to animals is indefensible and morally wrong, and, at the same time, most of the world is either indifferent to animal suffering or believes it's justifiable.”

Massey also says that generally there tends to be too much emphasis on individual consumptive habits and not enough on the systems, companies, farms, and slaughterhouses.

“Congress has practically given farms and slaughterhouses carte blanche to treat animals in whatever grisly and gruesome way they want,” he adds. “This means it’s perfectly legal to keep animals in gestation crates so small they cannot move, castrate them while they’re unanesthetized, electrocute them while they’re dunked into vats of water, and even kill them in gas chambers.

“States similarly often exempt farmed animals from coverage under their animal cruelty statutes and have attempted to pass Agricultural-Gag—Ag-Gag—laws that criminalize the exposure of conditions to the public, though those laws have often been found to violate the First Amendment. In short, we need Congress to step up, do its job, and regulate this industry that has for far too long gotten away with murder.”

Last summer, Massey interned as a law clerk at the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore.. He is heading to the Big Apple this fall.

“I’m thrilled to be starting my career as a public defender in New York City,” he says. “One day I would love to represent activists in criminal defense and civil rights cases.”

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