Interview: Championing animal law education in Africa – Motunrayo Esan

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Motunrayo Esan’s journey from being born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria, to becoming an outstanding animal scholar is truly remarkable. Her transformation from a background detached from animal protection to becoming a trailblazer in animal law education is noteworthy.

After obtaining a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) at Seventh-Day Adventist Institution, Babcock University, Nigeria, Motunrayo “Mo” Esan drafted a law that regulated the adoption of dogs as security in Nigeria, which became a turning point in her academic career.

While researching on Nigerian dog laws, Mo identified gaps in the protection of animals and decided to give in to her passion for the development of animal law. She identified how “anti-animal welfare” the Dog Laws of various states were; especially with legislation that mandated lost dogs to be ‘destroyed.’

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In 2020, Lagos state decided to reform its Animal Law prompted by the issue of a recent custody of a lion by a private individual. Mo was tasked with monitoring the high-profile case and drafting a legal analysis of liability. Eighteen months later, she was chosen by the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS), as the recipient of a robust scholarship award for a master’s degree in animal law at Lewis and Clark Law School, Portland, Oregon in the United States. The International Society for Animal Rights (ISAR) took a special interest in her and named her as a scholar and recipient of the Joyce Tischler’s Scholarship Award. CALS remains the world’s first and only institution that awards advanced degrees in animal law.

Through her nonprofit organization, Green Thumb Initiative (GTI), Mo has received grants that will further her mission to reform animal protection in Nigeria using the educational sector and legal system.

GTI has partnered with Speak Out for Animals (SOFA)- Africa’s largest wildlife law initiative located in Zimbabwe to launch the world’s first post-graduate diploma in Wildlife Law. We recently sat down with Mo to learn more about her animal law work.

Why is there a need for animal law education in Africa?
A common myth is that Africa has poor animal laws. That is simply untrue. An analysis of the legislation available in several countries shows that there are many statutes in place that protect animals. In fact, some national constitutions even recognize a common objective to protect wildlife and the environment which animals are a critical part of. Other countries like the United States and Finland have enacted standalone legislation on animal welfare protection. Unfortunately, as strong as those laws are, they do not help African animals or advance their protection. Animal law education in Africa is essential to bring Africa to an informed position in terms of global discussions on animal protection. I recently represented Animal Advocacy Careers at the Animal & Vegan Summit that was held in Los Angeles in July and interacting with hundreds of students in the United States opened up my mind to the gaps that we still had to fill in Africa generally. With information and outreach, the world can become a better and safer place for all living beings.

How did you become interested in animal law?
Honestly, it has been a journey. I have always loved dogs but not in a remarkable way. I remember hearing conversations between my father and mother where he would try to convince her to allow the dogs into the living room and bedrooms. Despite all his efforts, my mother’s answer was always no. Nevertheless, my father’s love for dogs was passed on to me and I found myself constantly tasked with the duty of feeding puppies and taking dogs for vaccination appointments. It was not until 2019 when I was to select a topic for a dissertation paper as part of the requirement for my law degree, that it became a passion and a career choice. The research revealed an undiscovered area of Nigerian legislation which I ended up establishing as a discipline: Nigerian Animal Law. In 2020, I faced a challenge. I wanted an advanced degree in animal law and found that no single institution in Nigeria had the facilities to support my research. After speaking to several law departments across universities, I ended up with my Alma Mata, Babcock University which allowed me to design my degree in an original way with an animal law focus! It was the first of its kind in the country because I used Public International Law, Criminal Law, and Environmental Law modules to produce a dissertation that ended up in a draft for a universal declaration on animal protection. It was like the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR), but for animals. Despite that, I was still unsatisfied, so I accepted an offer in 2022 for a second master’s degree in animal law in the United States at Lewis and Clark Law School. Building on that, I then founded the Green Thumb Initiative (GTI) in February 2023.

What do you feel has been your greatest professional achievement?
My greatest would be the appointment to be an Animal Law Professor in the world’s first postgraduate diploma in wildlife law graduate course. This is the hallmark for me because it puts me in the best position to influence the next generation of animal lawyers. In this role, I will advance animal law worldwide by directly shaping its education from students across the world including The United States, Chile, and Ghana!

More importantly, I highly value the global impact that my work has had. When the Cambridge Centre for Animal Rights Law decided to take up the project of writing the world’s first textbook on animal rights law, I was appointed to work on one of the chapters and develop a biography of African animal rights law resources. The process of researching all the animal laws in each country in Africa was humbling and inspiring. It let me know that my work truly had an impact. Also, I have presented in novel conferences including the Comparative Animal Law Workshop held in Kent, United Kingdom and I was a panelist at the 2023 Radboud Conference on Earth System Governance in the Netherlands. Early this year, I was invited to contribute to the world’s first encyclopedia on animal law! It will be published early 2024 and I will be donating copies to the law faculties of Nigerian universities.

The cumulation of all of these mark my biggest professional achievement because it puts me in the class of the people in the field before me worldwide and it shows my impact beyond Nigeria. I have been able to do this much in such a short time, I am super excited for what the next decade will bring in terms of global animal protection. It is indeed such an honor to be in the front line of such a remarkable endeavor.

Can you tell us about the Green Thumb Initiative and its work?
At GTI, our aim is to pioneer the development of animal law in Africa. We intend for its reach to include higher learning institutions like universities, government agencies, churches, and elementary schools. We do this through courses, documentaries, and training sessions. We have created courses on aquatic animal law, wildlife law, global animal law and nonprofit charity management.
GTI is registered in the U.S. as a 501c (3) nonprofit organization with tax-exemption status.

What is on the horizon for GTI?
Over the past five years, since I got involved in the field of animal law, I have been able to master the trend in the United States especially. This is essential to have a well-rounded view of how to approach future developments. GTI aims to be at the forefront of pioneering animal law education worldwide. With my expertise and the support of my team, I have been able to partner with universities in Nigeria and Zimbabwe to include it in the curriculum. For now, all I can say is watch out!

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