The formation of the Society for the Study of Ethics and Animals (SSEA) was triggered by the surprising success of a conference held in May, 1979, at Virginia Tech. That conference, organized by Harlan B. Miller and William H. R. Williams, both of Virgina Tech, was funded by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities under the rubric of “Moral Foundations of Public Policy.” Miller and Williams later edited a volume based on the event: Ethics and Animals (Humana Press, 1983).

The first meeting of the SSEA was held in conjunction with the 1979 Eastern Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in the Sheraton Center Hotel in New York City. On December 28, 1979, H. Lyn Miles of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga gave a talk on the ethics of language research: "Orang-utans and Language: The Ethics of Ugliness;" and Thomas Simon (University of Florida) gave a lecture entitled, "Ethical Implications of Human, Machine and Animal Communication."

The SSEA has held workshops on animal ethics almost every year since its founding. The earliest of these workshops were organized around central themes like "zoos," "the replacement argument," and "the relation between 'animal liberation' and environmental ethics." Miller ran both the SSEA and those workshops until 2002, when he turned things over to Mylan Engel (Northern Illinois University). In 2016, Engel handed things off to Bob Fischer (Texas State University) and Jeff Johnson (St. Catherine University). Johnson stepped down in 2020 and was replaced by C. E. Abbate (University of Nevada, Las Vegas). SSEA workshops were held in conjunction with the APA through 2017. In recent years, SSEA workshops have been held just prior to the Rocky Mountain Ethics Congress at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

From 1980-1984, the SSEA published a journal called Ethics and Animals. The first original articles appeared in 1981: Richard L. Fern's "Human Uniqueness as a Guide to Resolving Conflicts Between Animal and Human Interests" and Tom Regan's "Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism Again." Ethics and Animals published 19 issues over the course of four years.

From the earliest days of the journal, the editor expressed an interest in taking an interdisciplinary approach to animal ethics. As Miller explained in 1983:

We philosophers are surely not the only ones with important things to say about human treatment of nonhumans. Psychologists, biologists of many sorts, veterinarians, historians, legal scholars, sociologists, political scientists, students of religion, and so on, all can contribute evidence and argument in this area. So please join in, and recruit your friends, whatever their field, to join in as well. Even philosophers are still welcome.

During its run, Ethics and Animals had two managing editors, Jeanne Keister (March 1980 – June 1981) and Suzie J. Vankrey (September 1981 – December 1981). The journal's Board of Directors included:

Ann Cottrell Free (June 1980 – May 1982)

Theodore Sager Meth (June 1980 – May 1983)

Tom Regan (June 1980 – May 1984)

Lilly-Marlene Russow (June 1980 – December 1984)

George P. Cave (June 1982 –December 1984)

Sidney Gendin (June 1983 – December 1984)

Steve F Sapontzis (June 1984 – December 1984)

The last issue of Ethics and Animals was mailed in August of 1985. That same year, the journal evolved into Between the Species, with Steve Sapontzis and John Stockwell at the helm. Today, Between the Species is edited by Joseph Lynch (Cal Poly San Luis Obispo), and while it's no longer published by the Society, many of the papers in Between the Species began as talks at SSEA workshops.