Demand for animal law courses escalating


Esteemed law schools from Harvard to UCLA are churning out dozens of courses in animal law in response to society's mounting penchant for pets.

Esteemed law schools from Harvard to UCLA are churning out dozens of courses in animal law in response to society's mounting penchant for pets.

The schools are exploring the most litigious areas of animal law including the merits of animal ownership, pet-related emotional distress and biomedical research.

Dr. Charlotte LaCroix

Such course material mirrors societal views, says Laura Ireland Moore, animal law attorney and pet owner. "Dogs just don't eat table scraps and sit in the backyard anymore. They're our babies, who sleep in bed with us."

Furthering that concept, on Sept. 1, Newsweek, one in a line of publications to recognize pets' influence on society, published an article, "Filing for Fido," recapping the evolving status of pets in the law.

Therefore, the message to veterinarians is critical, says Charlotte LaCroix, DVM, Esq, veterinary legal consultant. "You're substituting pets for children, meaning vets would be in the shoes of pediatricians. It certainly may change how veterinary medicine is practiced. Pet owners will look to veterinarians for insight as to how that's changing their responsibilities."

In the academic arena, Bruce Wagman, San Francisco-based civil litigator for 11 years, who teaches an animal law course, notes a "significant upswing" in the desire of law students to learn about animal law.

Reaping attention

"The attorney interest is reflecting the public interest," says Wagman. "The public interest is a recognition and reflection of the value of nonhumans to our world in its simplest terms."

Moot court puts animal law on stand

Consequently the increasing number of law courses devoted to animals merely echoes the heightened awareness of the welfare and treatment of animals to society.

At least 25 law schools, including Duke University, the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard and the University of Chicago, have at least one animal law course, reports the National Center for Animal Law, a nonprofit educational group at the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. The University of Washington will launch its first course in 2004. Additionally, 40 schools have student animal law organizations.

Law school courses amass

However, no school has an official "program" staffed with full-time teaching positions. An ongoing goal of the center is to endow faculty positions and develop official animal law programs.

Nurturing the recent crop of animal law courses is the collaborative work of Pamela Frasch, animal law attorney and lead author of the casebook, Animal Law. She says this second-edition book is answering academic demands. "We heard frustration of various professors and attorneys who wanted to teach the class but found it to be very time-consuming. We knew there was this pent-up demand for this (casebook). As a result, we've seen a big growth in the number of law schools that offer animal law," says Frasch.

Book substantiates animal law courses

Case in point, when the book was published in 1999, nine courses were available; today, at least 25.

Frasch adds, "As people become more savvy about the relationship with animals and our responsibility in how we treat animals, it's a natural development that the law would recognize this."

Gregory Dennis, JD, president of the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, expects to see an abundance of new law courses in the coming months, but anticipates the "trend" will taper.

Bursting bubble

"What I'll be interested to see is what law school courses will be like in four to five years. Right now there is a natural interest in students who would like to take such courses. But I've seen popularity law courses come and go," says Dennis.

Dennis sees the outpouring of courses directly correlating with the guardianship/ownership debate, emotional pain and suffering lawsuits and society's awareness of animals' existence.

Adam Karp, an attorney with 95 percent of his caseload devoted to animal law, argues many students now choose law school specifically because it offers animal law courses.

"As long as people have companion animals and their interest in caring continues, the law really handles the interactions between people and their pets. What we're seeing is just more awareness that it's available," says Karp, who taught an animal law course at Seattle University.

Pet insurance revenue soars, report says

The current surge in interest in animal law prompts the veterinary consulting side to caution veterinarians.

Veterinary red flag

"This movement will have a direct impact on (veterinarians') relationship with clients and their relationship with animals," says LaCroix. "It may actually cause veterinarians to practice defensive medicine, just like in human medicine, which will invariably increase the cost of care."

She says veterinarians may soon need to recommend unnecessary tests to protect against potential allegations of malpractice.

As the animal law field unfolds, LaCroix recommends practical pointers for veterinarians:

  • Maintain complete, accurate medical records;

  • Communicate fully with clients so there's no mismatch of expectations;

  • Tailor your communication style to the clients' needs;

  • Always practice medicine in the best interest of the pet.

Adds Karp, "Veterinarians (should) be more aware of the probability that a claim will be brought through the representation of an attorney. Whether they're going to have to significantly worry about financial damage to their practice, probably not yet, because the driving factor is the value of the patients."

Karp says veterinarians can gain from clients' legal pursuits. "If there's a rising tide of awareness that legal representation is an option, it comes with increased likelihood that clients will spend more for animal patients."

Ireland Moore, executive director of Lewis and Clark Law School's National Center for Animal Law, Portland, Ore., says the animal law movement is approaching an "interesting" crossroads.

Fork in road

"Twenty years ago, if you brought an 'animals aren't property' case into court, judges would've laughed. Now judges will listen and sometimes let people argue it," she notes.

But, Ireland underscores, "They're not willing to take the next step." While acknowledging "the law isn't perfect," judges seem to circumvent the issue by shifting responsibility. "They're saying off the record, 'Of course this should change, but it should change through legislature.'"

The evolving status of pets shouldn't be a threat to veterinarians, only "absurd" results, says LaCroix. "The guardianship movement (tries) to impose greater responsibility on owners (to) take better care of their pets. Unfortunately, changing the status of the pet (won't) make people better pet owners. Bad parents are bad parents. You can't legislate that. More is accomplished by education than by legislation, which leads to more lawsuits and richer lawyers."

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