The rise of animal law


Shifting societal perceptions, and a lot of money, fueling popularity.

NATIONAL REPORT — Sherwin Figueroa, a life-long animal lover, decided she wanted to be a prosecutor in high school. When choosing a law school, Figueroa aimed to marry her two passions and found the "perfect" program at the University of Georgia.

"This school has a fabulous prosecutorial program and an animal law group," she says.

A deep-seated love for animals is also driving demand for courses in the area, and their availability has kept pace. Both those interested in protecting animals from cruelty and those pursuing the more radical animal-rights agenda are suiting up as lawyers instead of throwing paint on fur-coat-wearing women or picketing the local fast-food chain.

"I think the biggest struggle we face as attorneys ... is distancing ourselves from being immediately labeled as 'radicals,'" Figueroa says. "Most people in this country do have pets and are against harming them."

Increased pet ownership and the evolution of the human-animal bond is a core reason for the explosive growth of animal law, says James F. Wilson, DVM, JD, a practicing attorney and head of Yardley, Penn.-based Priority Veterinary Management Consultants. "We went from pets as property to pets as family members for society in general," he says.

Although Wilson acknowledges that some veterinarians may be concerned about the rise of animal law and its impact on veterinary medicine, he cautions the profession not to be too quick to judge. "We've been facing the problem of looking self-serving by opposing everything," says Wilson. "On the one side, we fight everything, but on the other side, we (encourage clients) to love their pets and spend $30,000 on chemotherapy. It's an awkward dichotomy."

Nonetheless, animal law is a trend that has emerged, and the long-term impact to the veterinary profession is anyone's guess.

Tracing roots

Animal law's roots date back to the 1970s. That was when Joyce Tischler, co-founder and general counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), banded together with another attorney also interested in animal protection.

She began to hold meetings for lawyers who were also animal lovers interested in their protection and open to learning federal and state laws related to animals. ALDF was officially founded in 1979 and over the years has steadily grown. It now has offices in Cotati, Calif., and Portland, Ore., and affiliations with more than 100 chapters of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund.

"I didn't go out there intending to create a field of law," she says. "I was trying to find ways to protect animals. What motivates me is animals that are in a persistent state of suffering. I just want to help them."

Key legislative initiatives passed in the 1980s put animals on center stage, notes Wilson, including the Animal Welfare Act and Endangered Species Act. As interest grew, the door opened for animal law.

Those in the research community were concerned this new-found interest by the legal community would spur greater litigious scrutiny—whether justified or not.

But, Wilson says, there was a key turning point for animal law and its legitimacy in the legal community.

"There were six schools teaching animal-law in 1999, and that is when Harvard began to teach it," he says. "Now, at last count, at least 117 (law schools) are teaching this subject, up from six in 1999. It grew very, very rapidly."

In fact, when Harvard made its announcement, those in the then-small animal law community were ecstatic. Pamela Frasch, who currently heads Lewis & Clark's Center for Animal Law Studies, told the Associated Press in July 1999, "Everybody I know that teaches animal law was absolutely thrilled to hear that Harvard was going to offer it," she said. "It's just reality that if Harvard is going to teach it, that other schools that might have looked askance at it as a legitimate area of study might take another look."

Harvard hired Steven Wise, head of the Center for Expansion of Fundamental Rights, to teach the course. He has long argued for equal rights for animals. Around the same time, Princeton hired Peter Singer, noted Australian philosopher and author of "Animal Liberation," which argues that animals' interests should be considered due to their ability to suffer.

This philosophical premise has polarized groups from those in agriculture, research and veterinary medicine.

The money trail

It is not just the benign love of animals or the influence of academic celebrity that has increased animal law's visibility. Money from a variety of sources, all tied to animal welfare or animal rights, is flowing into law schools. The Animal Legal Defense Fund backed the 2008 founding of the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark University in Portland, Ore., and continues to financially support the school.

Most prominently, a foundation set up by activist and former "The Price is Right" host Bob Barker distributed $1 million grants to law schools to start animal-law programs. Recipients include some of the nation's top schools, such as Northwestern University School of Law, Columbia Law School, Duke University School of Law, Stanford Law School, the University of California at Los Angeles, Harvard and Georgetown University Law Center.

Georgetown also has a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), started as the first of its kind in 2007, part of which includes an animal-law fellowship. The fellowship, according to the announcement, allows recent graduates to "practice animal law at HSUS for a year after graduation." That partnership was also funded by the Barker grant, in addition to other donations.

HSUS, with revenues of more than $126 million in 2009, according to their published financial statements, has the largest animal-law practice in the United States. In 2005, HSUS started a legal department with three full-time attorneys. As of December 2010, that group had 15 full-time staff attorneys, according to the HSUS website, in addition to some 2,000 lawyers doing pro bono work for the organization and law students providing support services from Georgetown University Law Center.

What's more, in late 2009 HSUS tapped into some of the nation's leading law firms with partnerships that allowed first-year associates to work for HSUS on a pro-bono basis for one year before returning to their firms.

Veterinary impact

The rise of animal law has attracted the attention of the veterinary profession, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

"We've probably done at least 20 presentations (at law schools) since 2009," says Adrian Hochstadt, AVMA's assistant director of state legislative and regulatory affairs. However, he acknowledges, it is difficult to gauge the potential impact of animal law's explosion.

"The motivations of the attorneys vary widely. Some want to push for things we don't (support) like guardianship or more liability for animal-care providers," he says. "But some of these folks are pushing for animal welfare, cruelty laws, unauthorized practice of veterinary medicine and things that are a little more in line with our legislative goals."

Hochstadt says the association's leadership felt the need to engage at the law-school level because the coursework did not always provide the veterinary community's point of view.

"We want to provide the veterinary side of things," he says. "We didn't feel the students were getting that because the organizations that set up the programs have a different view of these (issues)."

Tischler contends that DVMs are often integral to her organization's cases and she sees a kindred spirit in DVMs.

"I've always felt vets generally go into being vets for the same reasons I went into animal law, ... to get involved in animal protection and find ways we can reach common ground to protect animals," Tischler says. "There's a lot of common ground, especially with younger vet students now. They seem to really see it."

And for many going into animal law today, like Figueroa, who will graduate in May, their motivations lie more with keeping animals away from harm rather than advocating for equal rights.

"No one says, 'animals should be abused,'" she says. "At the end of the day, people are against bad treatment of animals."

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