In class — ‘Law 263: Animal Law’

by Tina Owen,

Scott Beckstead’s College of Law class explores how pets, wildlife and farm animals are regarded and treated under the law.

  • Adjunct Professor Scott Beckstead has been teaching a class on wildlife law
    Adjunct Professor Scott Beckstead has been teaching a class on wildlife law and the Endangered Species Act at Willamette’s College of Law since 2010.


The class offers an exploration and discussion of the treatment of animals under state, federal and constitutional law.

Session topics includes the various legal classifications of animals, the obligations and state regulation of ownership, veterinary malpractice, animals in agriculture, wildlife issues and criminal law in cases of animal abuse and neglect. As part of their assignments, students write an animal adoption contract and a 20-page summary judgment memorandum that discusses relevant legal statutes and cases for an animal law tort case.


The class enrolls 10-20 students, typically in the second or third year of law school. The small class size encourages dynamic discussion.


Adjunct professor Scott Beckstead has taught this course and others on wildlife law and the Endangered Species Act at Willamette’s College of Law since 2010. Born and raised on a ranch in southern Idaho, Beckstead hunted, showed rabbits, goats and cattle at 4H, and was a member of Future Farmers of America. He practiced law in Oregon for 17 years. A passionate advocate for animals, he co-authored the first textbook on animal law in 2000 and is currently rural affairs director and Oregon senior state director for the Humane Society of the United States.


In the first session of the course, Beckstead shows students two photographs: one of a Labrador retriever trapped by the leg in a steel trap, and the other of a coyote caught in a similar device. “The level of pain and suffering felt by both animals is probably the same,” he says, “so why does the law decide one act is objectionable and the other is to be encouraged?”

Over the next 14 weeks, students will explore similar inconsistencies in how pets, wildlife and farm animals are regarded and treated under the law. They learn about landmark legislation such as the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Lacey Act of 1900, the first federal statute that said wildlife couldn’t be privatized or commercialized because it belongs to everyone. Instead, like natural resources, wildlife was held in public trust, to be managed by the state for the public interest.

Students soon discover that animal law — and the underlying issues — are nuanced and complex. As part of his “real-world” emphasis, their professor invites guest speakers from both sides of the animal rights discussion. One week a local attorney explains how he obtained a record-level jury settlement in the case of two livestock dogs that were shot by hunters. In another session, a cattle rancher offers his perspective on how the animal protection movement affects people who make their living with animals.

Unlike animal law courses taught in other universities, this one isn’t dedicated to the philosophical bases for advancing the legal cause of animal protection. Beckstead’s top priority is simply to help students become good lawyers armed with critical thinking skills.

“We spend some time talking about the concept of ‘animal rights’ and the ethical justifications for granting animals legal protection. I make it clear that I have a certain perspective, but my job is not to get them to think like me,” says Beckstead. “I want them to think like a good lawyer would. This is a law class, so most of our time is spent talking about real cases, real fact patterns and the real legal work a lawyer would undertake in practicing animal law.”

He notes that animal law is fast-growing, not only for tort law but also in policy development, advocacy and academia. “It’s an incredibly dynamic and fruitful area for practicing lawyers,” he says. “The prospects for law students who are interested in animal law are getting better and better.”

Beckstead ascribes the growth in animal law to increased societal awareness of and concern for animals and their welfare, explaining, “Ideally, the law codifies where society at large stands on an issue of concern, and that is the direction that the field of animal law is headed.”

Particular challenges

To help them become good lawyers, Beckstead tasks students with defending a position they don’t support personally. A committed vegan might have to advocate for a butcher facing a lawsuit. A student who supports hunting or factory farming might have to argue the case for improving animal welfare legislation.

What students say

“I think animal law is the new frontier of recognized rights. It’s been interesting to learn that there are a lot of special interests at play when it comes to protecting animals from cruelty. It’s not just activists railing against animal abusers — there are a lot of nuanced policies and rationales motivating the legislation and agency rulemaking going on behind the scenes.” — Emily Lohman JD’19

“Animal law junctures with so many other areas of law, such as land use, criminal, civil, product liability, business, property, family, trusts and estates. To understand animal law is to better understand the other areas.” — Brittany January JD’19

This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Willamette magazine.

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