Animal Advocacy During The Trump Administration

Many animal advocates opposed the election of Donald Trump.  The Humane Society called a Trump presidency “a threat to animals everywhere.” Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Washington Post, warned of Trump’s “anti-animal animus.”

The reality is more nuanced. While Trump seems likely to roll back some legal protections for animals, the change in administration might also create new opportunities for animal advocates.

First, the bad news. The Trump administration seems less interested than its predecessors in enforcing animal cruelty laws. For example, on Thursday, February 2, the U.S. Department of Agriculture abruptly took down its webpage publicizing investigations of animal abuse. This move seems to signal a less zealous approach to enforcement by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The new stance is not surprising given Trump’s earlier tolerance of animal cruelty by Ringling Brothers’ Circus.

A second cause for concern is the Trump administration’s goal of empowering states to regulate wildlife currently covered by the Endangered Species Act. Several state officials have declared that they would reduce populations of wolves and other predators if permitted to do so by the federal government. On January 17, a federal judge blocked the state of Idaho from using telemetry collars to track wolves on federal land; the plaintiffs had alleged that the collars would allow the state to wipe out the wolf population.   If Trump grants states more autonomy to manage wildlife, the use of collared “Judas wolves” to track and slaughter packs will likely increase.

On the other hand, a Trump presidency may present new opportunities to advocate for animals. Trump may prove more willing to stand up to Big Agriculture than were his predecessors. Advocates might focus on the inconsistency of federal agriculture policy with basic conservative tenets. For example, Trump might decide to curtail farm subsidies and abolish the “commodity checkoff” program that Big Ag has used to market meat and milk generically. Trump might have greater loyalty to small-scale farmers who helped him win in states like Ohio than to the operators of factory farms that are the most abusive of animals.

Trump might also support stronger limits on international wildlife trafficking.   Prior U.S. administrations have enforced the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), but a significant amount of harmful trafficking lies beyond the reach of the current CITES regime. Trump has shown a willingness to restrict imports from countries that have a “competitive advantage” over the U.S. because their internal regulations are more lax; perhaps disparities in wildlife regulations might motivate Trump to impose such sanctions. Some commentators foresee that Trump could take an interest in restricting wildlife trafficking, in part because business leaders whom Trump respects seem to favor such restrictions. Skeptics, however, point to the involvement of Trump’s sons in trophy hunting abroad.

Animal advocates should pay close attention to the Trump administration’s management of federal lands. While many Republicans favor selling federal land, both Trump and his appointee for Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, insist on retaining all federal holdings. Will they conserve wildlife habitat? To be sure, the Trump administration supports increased logging and resource extraction on federal land.   These activities will damage habitat, although vigilant animal advocates can try to minimize adverse impacts by invoking the procedures set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Because federal agencies will have more revenue from selling timber and permits for drilling – and will no longer give states payments in lieu of timber receipts – animal advocates will have an opportunity to seek greater funding for habitat restoration and other conservation measures.   Zinke’s statements of support for the Land and Water Conservation Fund suggest that he might be amenable to utilizing some of the increased revenues for conservation projects.

There is one other way in which the Trump administration may, perhaps unwittingly, advance the cause of animal rights. Cornell’s Sherry Colb and Michael Dorf have criticized advocates who seek to promote animal welfare rather than animal rights. Of course, Colb and Dorf do not support animal cruelty; rather, they contend that animal welfare laws prop up industries that systematically abuse animals. Laws purporting to ensure “humane” treatment of animals in labs and industry reduce the potential for public criticism. These laws mask, and thereby perpetuate, the oppression inherent in our exploitation of animals. The Trump administration seems likely to reduce enforcement of animal cruelty laws. This indifference to animals’ plight might ironically strengthen the animal rights movement by provoking public outrage over the cruelty of our present anthropocentrism. If Trump’s new Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Purdue, proves insensitive to animal welfare, he could increase support for animal rights in the same way that Bull Connor increased support for civil rights.

In conclusion, the outlook for animal advocacy during the Trump administration is either bleak or potentially promising, depending on the matter at issue. Time will tell if Trump merits comparison to Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Nixon, two Republicans who made great strides for conservation. The early statements from Trump and his team provide little basis for optimism. But just as animals must adapt to new surroundings, so too must their legal advocates update their strategies in order to maximize the odds of success in a new political environment. The urgency of animal advocacy has not changed, even though the strategies of advocacy will need to change in order to appeal to new policymakers.

Conservatism can abide conservation. The similarity of those words suggests the compatibility of the ideologies that they represent. Perhaps some skillful advocacy might persuade the new administration to surprise the skeptics.

*The author, a Wayne Morse Public Policy Scholar at the University of Oregon, is a guest contributor and writes about animal protection and environmental issues. His article on wildlife management is forthcoming in the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Forum.


Suggested citation: Henry Lininger, Animal Advocacy During The Trump AdministrationCornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Feb. 7, 2017),

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