Animal law comes into its own: as Americans place more value - monetarily and otherwise - on pets, the importance of animal law is growing. Here's an Illinois-focused look at this emerging.

Author:Gunnarsson, Helen W.

What on earth is this thing called animal law? Is the idea to give chimpanzees the right to vote? Spotted owls and snail darters the right to own land? Will cats be suing their owners for feeding them store brand food instead of Fancy Feast? And, pray tell, how will a dog be able to pay attorney fees for defending him against biting a human?

Of course, animal law implies none of those scenarios. Rather, in Texas Tech University School of Law rofessor Gerry Beyer's words, "There's a little bit of animal law in almost every area of law."

Beyer explains: Criminal law encompasses cruelty to animals, as may tort law, which also includes negligent injuries of animals, including veterinary malpractice, and animal injuries to humans, such as dog bites. Estate planning may involve animals when a client wishes to ensure that pets will continue to be cared for after the client's death. Family lawyers know that pets may be the subject of custody disputes when a couple's marriage or family relationship breaks up.

Farming, breeding, buying, and selling of animals require a special expertise within business law. Real estate and municipal lawyers may need to develop a corresponding expertise for those concerned about living downwind of a hog confinement operation or who wish to keep their potbellied pig pets when residing in a swanky suburb or condominium.

And, though even the most ardent animal rights advocates aren't advocating the far-fetched scenarios described in the first paragraph (though some do argue against the concept of animals as property or resources to be exploited for the benefit of humans), Beyer observes that some arguments in favor of or against animal rights and welfare may implicate constitutional law issues.

In fact, there's so much animal law within the more traditional categories of law that there's now an animal-law casebook that most, if not all, of the 80-odd U.S. law schools that now offer animal law courses use. San Francisco lawyer Bruce Wagman, a partner in the Chicago-based law firm Schiff hardin LLP, coauthored the text with Sonia A. Waisman and Pamela D. Frasch.

"Animal law is exploding"

Says Wagman, "Animal law is exploding." Wagman, who himself teaches animal law as an adjunct professor at four California law schools, including top-ranked Boalt Hall and Hastings College of Law of the University of California, notes that when he began teaching 11 years ago only six law schools in the country offered a course in animal law--and of those courses, most were offered only in the evening or summer sessions. Now, there are at least three student-run animal law journals publishing scholarly articles in the field.

Wagman and others compare the growing acceptance of animal law as an area deserving of its own niche within academia and legal practice with the history of other former niche practices, such as environmental law and civil rights law. Recalls University of Illinois College of Law Professor Francis Boyle, whose teaching assignments include human rights, "Thirty years ago, when I was a student at Harvard, there were precious few courses on human rights at law schools." Now, of course, both environmental law and civil rights law are accepted and well-respected practice areas found in the largest of firms as well as in solo offices.

Why is animal law booming? As Professor Beyer has observed in his article "What Every Veterinarian Needs to Know about Pet Trusts" (see sidebar on page 415), "Many pet owners in the United States today treat their pets as members of the family and are extremely devoted to them." Americans are increasingly willing to dedicate significant portions of their disposable income to the care of their pets, including veterinary care approaching and sometimes even exceeding medical care afforded to humans, premium pet food, pet accessories, including toys, bedding, housing, and enclosures.

Spending sometimes continues up to and beyond the grave, as some owners pony up for pet cemetery plots, taxidermy, and even cloning of deceased pets. It's only logical, then, that legal planning and care for pets would follow, including pet trusts to ensure the care of a companion animal after its owner's death, lawsuits for veterinary malpractice, and suits against other providers of pet services when owners' expectations and the needs of their pets aren't met.

A litigator, Wagman describes his practice at Schiff, a corporate law firm with several hundred attorneys across the country, as "100 percent animal law." And the bulk of it isn't pro bono, either--Wagman's paying clients include the Animal Legal Defense Fund, other nonprofit organizations, and individuals.

A former nurse, Wagman was heading toward becoming a Native American rights lawyer after completing a stint as a federal judicial clerk. But one day, 15 years ago, "I went to an ABA presentation on what was then called animal rights law and walked out converted."

Wagman didn't just walk into a lucrative animal law practice. Rather, he began building up that area of his practice by taking small, mostly pro bono, cases in his small firm. Supportive partners and increasingly larger cases and clients helped him to devote all of his working hours to an animal law practice as of three years ago.

Now, his firm, which merged with Schiff in January, and his practice are national. In one of his cases, he's challenging the federal government...

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