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The Growing Field of Animal Law

  • August 12th, 2014
  • Katherine Becker
The Growing Field of Animal Law

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 the 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 thirty 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.

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