Q & A with Elizabeth Ellis, author of Australian Animal Law

Elizabeth Ellis is an honorary senior fellow with the School of Law at the University of Wollongong where she taught for many years. She introduced animal law into the Bachelor of Laws degree in 2008, making UOW one of the earliest Australian universities to teach the subject.

A woman with long dark hair sits at a table with bookshelves behind her. She is smiling.


What inspired you to zero in on animal law as an area of expertise? 

The establishment of Voiceless, the animal protection institute, and the legal academics who pioneered animal law in Australia were my primary inspiration. I’d cared about animal welfare for a long time but hadn’t connected the dots in terms of my legal career; in hindsight, I’m astonished it took me so long to do so.


Do you see a disconnect between the groundswell of community support for animal welfare and the laws we currently have in place regarding animal welfare?  

Most definitely. One of the reasons for writing the book was to explore this discrepancy and why achieving meaningful change for animals is so very difficult.


What shocked you during your research?  

Unfortunately, very little! It reinforced a number of things though: the problems are systemic, detailed information is very hard to obtain and there is an enormous gulf between official animal welfare narratives and the legal reality.


How would you describe your writing process? 

Not as fast as I would like! But it’s less the writing that takes time than the thinking that precedes it and how to conceptualise the issues. An important part of this book is about making connections – between the regulation of apparently disparate animal uses and between the law and its social and economic context. It’s exciting when you discover the connections between different issues and the writing starts to flow but there’s still a great deal of research and lots of redrafting.


Who do you see as the target audience for this book? Is it only law specialists and students or do you think the book appeals to a wider cross-section of the population?   

While the book is a resource for students and lawyers, my contextual approach should also appeal to a wider audience because the legal detail is included to illustrate the book’s overarching themes. These themes are: the failure of law to protect animals, the reasons for this failure and the way the issues are rationalised. I also present animal law as a kind of story, emphasising the connections between the different chapters and the disconnect between official animal welfare narratives and the facts.


Apart from writing this book, are there other measures you take to support animal welfare in your own life? And what steps can others take to help? 

I think it’s important to realise there are lots of different ways to help protect animals. The most obvious is our personal choices - not only the food we eat but also the clothes we wear, the animals we choose as companions, how we deal with ‘pest’ animals in our houses and so on. I’m by no means perfect but I have made substantial changes and strive to be mindful in what I do. Supporting animal protection at a community level is another way of helping. For me, this has included volunteering at shelters and fostering cats; for others, it could be contributing as a wildlife carer or supporting not-for-profit organisations in a variety of ways. Also – and this is critical - we need to let our elected representatives know how much we care about animal welfare. I’ve lost count of the number of federal and state MPs I’ve had meetings with to express my concerns as a constituent about the failure to address a wide range of animal welfare issues. We need to think and act politically to achieve needed change and signing online petitions is simply not enough!


Much of the book revolves around the irony that Australian animal law and codes of practice for minimum accepted standards of animal treatment are inherently skewed towards supporting animal exploitation. You argue that the failure to protect animals is a systemic issue that is reflected, for instance, in the considerable industry influence on the standards-setting process and inadequate resourcing for government agencies regulating animal welfare. What, therefore, do you think the future looks like for animal welfare in Australia? 

At present, deeply conflicted government agencies and ministers are the gatekeepers of the legal and regulatory framework. Without genuinely independent and properly resourced governance structures and greatly increased regulatory transparency, it’s likely we’ll see only minimal improvements in animal protection. There’s some recognition at a political level of a strong community mood for significant change but we need to keep reinforcing this through political engagement.


Have you ever had concerns about speaking out against animal agriculture – or at least deeply-embedded, sometimes widespread, practices used in the industry? 

I’m concerned about a tendency to dismiss the viewpoint of anyone who is not connected to industry or agriculture even when their work is based on evidence or legal knowledge. Those advocating for reasonable and rational change are too often misrepresented or demeaned by some government and industry representatives.


You introduced animal law into the Bachelor of Laws degree in 2008, making the University of Wollongong, where you were teaching, one of the earliest Australian universities to teach the subject. Was this journey difficult? Why was animal law not previously part of the tertiary curriculum for law in Australia?   

I was lucky that the Law School at the University of Wollongong was generally supportive of introducing animal law as an elective subject. Some academics have had a more difficult experience. I think the subject was initially viewed as less important or rigorous than traditional law subjects but the increase in scholarship in this field is helping to correct this perspective. There’s also recognition of strong student interest, with animal law now offered at about 17 Australian universities.   


What would your advice be for postgraduate students, postdoctoral researchers and early career academics hoping to have their first book published?

Don’t be afraid to pitch your ideas to publishers and be prepared to persevere.


Australian Animal Law: Context and Critique is out 1 July 2022. Order your copy here.