Family Companion or Coffee Table? The Growing Field of Animal Law

By Katie Hause 

What is animal law? To most people, it is a trendy phrase with an ambiguous meaning. But those who have been paying close attention know that it is actually a very real movement in the legal world with exponential growth in its future.

The animal law field began to take root in the 1970s with help from leading attorneys like Joyce Tischler. After learning of too many cases in which animals were subjected to lives in miserable, frustrating, and painful conditions, Tischler decided to give animals a voice and bring their needs and interests to the bargaining table. Today, the movement is gaining traction, and attorneys across the nation are researching and working on cases that are rapidly shaping the basic contours of animal rights.

Animal Law is a combination of statutory law and case law in which the fundamental nature – whether it is legal, social or biological – of non-human animals is an important factor. These laws cover a broad spectrum and may concern the treatment of animals as companions, wildlife, entertainment, food and/or research subjects. There are many intersections between traditional law and animal law. Today, the animal law field includes, but is not limited to, cases concerning housing disputes involving animals, criminal law involving domestic and animal abuse, custody battles over companion animals, pet trusts, veterinary malpractice cases, cruelty cases, endangered species issues, and damages cases involving the wrongful death of a companion animal.

The animal law movement today is often compared to the environmental law movement 30 years ago. In 1972, Professor Christopher Stone wrote an essay titled, “Should Trees Have Standing?” explaining, among other topics, that at different times in history, certain individuals including women, minorities, non-citizens, and children did not have equal rights or standing to sue on their own behalf. Each of these movements was originally confronted with strong opposition from individuals who called the proposed expansion of rights laughable or absurd, but with time, education, and debate, each of the aforementioned groups was given more substantial rights. We are currently witnessing a similar debate regarding the rights of gay and lesbian individuals and couples.

I was drawn to the area of animal law while attending the Ventura College of Law, where I joined the VCL chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, a student branch of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (aldf.org). Being involved in this organization and taking an animal law course opened my eyes to the many ways that our lives are intertwined with the lives of animals, and I felt a curiosity and a responsibility towards them. Much like my probate practice, where I handle conservatorships or trust estates for incapacitated persons, I believe that my animal cases help those who cannot speak up for themselves. Many people are deeply invested in their relationship with animals, and the animal law movement is working to protect that investment with more rights for animals, both companion animals and others.

Pursuant to current property law, animals are chattel, the personal property of their owners. Statutes and cases refer to animals as “property,” therefore giving animals little to no value or legal rights. But we are witnessing a shift. In San Jose Charter of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club v. City of San Jose (9th Cir. 2005) 402 F. 3d 962, 975, the Ninth Circuit stated that “We have recognized that dogs are more than just a personal effect. The emotional attachment to a family’s dog is not comparable to a possessory interest in
furniture.”

In 2005, the ALDF was granted a permanent injunction against Barbara and Robert Woodley in the largest civil animal cruelty case in history and given custody of the 325 dogs found on the property. In 2007, Michael Vick was arrested and pled guilty for being involved in illegal dog fighting activities. Many campaigns against dog fighting rings since the Vick case have been successful. In 2008, California passed Proposition 2, which will ban some of farming’s cruelest practices, including keeping baby calves in veal crates, pregnant sows in gestation crates, and egg-laying hens in battery cages. In 2010, the City of West Hollywood passed an ordinance effectively banning the sale of animals bred at “puppy mills”. Later, in 2011, West Hollywood also banned the sale of fur apparel products within its city limits. In February, 2012, for the first time in U.S. history, a federal judge heard arguments in a case that could determine whether animals enjoy the same constitutional protection against slavery as human beings in the PETA v. Sea World case. Recently, nationwide media attention has been drawn to the process of factory farming, meat processing, and the infamous “pink slime.”

The animal law movement is working diligently for animals on many fronts, not only for companion animals, but to achieve basic rights for animals raised for food, used for entertainment, utilized in scientific experiments, and bred for our use, among others. We as lawyers have a unique opportunity to practice in this emerging area of law and help determine the rights that animals may or may not have. Numerous studies and documentaries (Goodall, Darwin, Disney) show that many animals are remarkably similar to us – they have social groups, they love and care for family members, they take care of their young, and have clear hierarchies and communication. We have also heard stories of animals who will risk their own lives for the lives of their “owners” or human companions. When all is said and done, we have to ask ourselves, why shouldn’t animals have the right to live a comfortable life? Why shouldn’t animals be considered more valuable than a piece of furniture?

A new section of the Ventura County Bar Association is commencing this year, the Animal Law Section. The Section will be hosting lunch meetings at the VCBA office in Ventura, the second Wednesday of each quarter. The lunches will include speakers, information and discussions regarding animal law and related topics. Their first lunch meeting will be held on October 10, 2012, and will be titled “Animal Law 101,” with Jill L. Ryther as the guest speaker. She is an animal law attorney practicing in Canoga Park, California. If you are interested in more information, in attending the first meeting or in joining the animal law section, please email katiehause@baslawoffice.com. Please look for their flyers in upcoming Citations issues. Also working on starting the Section are Deborah Parker (Camarillo) and Tom Adams (Ventura).

Katie Hause received her BA in Sociology from Boston College and her JD from Ventura College of Law. She is now a partner at Ben Schuck & Katherine Hause, LLP, and practices in the areas of probate and trust administration, estate planning, business law and animal law.

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