The rise of animal law

The rise of animal law

Shifting societal perceptions, and a lot of money, fueling popularity
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May 01, 2011

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.