Public Interest Paths: Animal Law is Getting Hot
Inspired by the Animal Law CLE hosted this month by the University of Washington chapter of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund that I belong to, I decided to spend this month focusing on the public service aspects of the emerging field of animal law.
How I Became Interested in Animal Welfare
How did I get interested in animal welfare? Probably the same way most people do - as a child. I’d always liked animals, in the way that little girls do. When I was small I would tell adults who indulgently asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” that I wanted to be a veterinarian. Like many children I grew up and realized that veterinary college involved a lot of science, which involved a lot of math, and took a really long time. So I went to law school instead.
Before this, as a young soldier in the army, I ended up stationed in North Carolina. I lived in a nice barracks building on a hill next to a large block building surrounded by a barbed wire fence. I asked my roommate what this place was, and she replied, “Oh, that’s the goat incinerator.”
This was not what I was expecting. I asked follow-up questions and learned that the Special Forces medic trainees used goats as training “patients.” They shot them, amputated them, treated their wounds, then euthanized them and incinerated them. They used to use dogs, which are easier to get one’s hands on and cheaper, but switched to goats instead.
I heard a story of why this switch happened, but I have a feeling it is an exaggerated urban myth of the sort that arises in institutions with an overlapping turnover of personnel. However, the mental picture this story creates in my mind is so vivid I’ve never been able to get it out of my head.
It goes like this: the medic animal labs, when full of patients, always have a soldier on duty monitoring them. A soldier came on duty one night and started to drink. And get morose. And start thinking too much.
At about 7:30 in the morning he flung open all the kennels and released the patients. It was about the time that the children on base were walking out to their bus stops and soldiers were finishing up physical training in the fields and the company areas. As the residents of the base went about their business, they stopped in frozen astonishment as they were passed by a barking, shrieking, slavering pack of bandaged, three-legged, drugged and disoriented hounds of every breed imaginable, from rangy mutts to stumpy-legged little dogs galloping and limping for freedom
And so the military switched over to goats.
Funny thing was, the idea of goats undergoing this process still bothered me. It made me realize that I wasn’t okay with the casual acceptance of animals as things.
The Evolution of Animal Rights
What this story—which may or may not be true—illustrated for me is that Americans are identifying more and more with animals as sentient beings, especially the ones we think of as pets. Considering we began from the starting point of philosophers such as Descartes stating that animals were no more than complex organic machines, and members of the Royal Society seeing no moral issues with performing live vivisections on dogs in the 17th and 18th centuries, we have come a long way towards creating legal rights for animals.
This is part of a long evolutionary process of enlightenment that has taken us centuries as a society. First we had to come to terms with the fact that men could not own other men as slaves. Then we had to acknowledge that women were not the property of their male relatives. Finally, children had to be understood as not being property to use and abuse as their parents wished.
It has been more difficult to extend this same empathy to non-humans, which are still regarded as either personal property or a natural resource, but we have reached the point where we are able to see them as at least partially sentient and deserving of a certain degree of care and protection.
Animal Law Today
One could say, accurately, that there really is no such thing as “animal law.” Animal law practitioner Russ Mead has a joke he likes to tell. It goes: “How do you become an animal lawyer? Introduce yourself as ‘Hello, my name is [insert name] and I am an animal lawyer.” There is no certification, no cohesive body of law.
People advocating for animal rights often have to turn to unlikely sources of law in their practice. Some animal lawyers attack factory farming using EPA and FDA codes that slaughterhouses violate, or the health code. Others go after animal hoarders on the grounds of municipal regulations and human welfare concerns. Some lawyers will turn to contract law, or attempt to lobby for constitutional rights for animals. The law is all over the place.
Gemma Zanowski, who I interviewed for this article, mentioned that she always runs into property issues in her practice: “The big issue is always property issues. We just worked on the tethering campaign to limit persistent, continuous tethering and it was going really well until certain interest groups got a hold of the fact that we were doing that and they started promulgating those arguments: ‘Don’t tell us how to treat our property.’ If you do THIS, then we aren’t going to be able to do X, Y, and Z.”
The practice of animal law has finally become widespread enough that Lewis & Clark Law School in Washington, a school known for hosting the longest-running animal law conference in the nation, has launched the very first Animal Law LLM program in America.
The courses offered for this degree illustrate the wide range of areas of law involved in the practice of animal law: animal law legislation, litigation, advanced research, criminal law, wildlife law, animals in commerce, animals in entertainment, and domestic violence policy.
My Interview with Gemma Zanowski, Animal Lawyer and Head of Tough Love Pit Bull Rescue
To learn more about Animal Law, I interviewed Gemma Zanowski. Gemma is a Seattle-based lawyer who graduated from the University of Arizona a few years ago and set herself up in private practice while also running Tough Love Pit Bull Rescue, which she co-founded. When I asked why she decided to go to law school, and what she uses her degree for now, she explained:
When I began getting involved in the rescue world is when it kind of solidified that I was going to go to law school. I realized as I was dealing with all that complicated bureaucracy that I was going to need some more tools in my toolbox in order to be able to help animals in the ways I wanted to help them...
Lately it’s been crazy, there’s a lot going on. One of my clients was a film company. They are working on a documentary about breed-specific legislation in Ohio. Basically I’ve been a jack-of-all trades on that project. I’ve been doing a lot of their social media campaign, we’ve been running a big photo campaign that kind of highlights the pit bull in a positive family-oriented way. I have worked on consulting with numerous small jurisdictions that are looking to fight against proposed breed laws. I speak with the groups that are in these localities, I discuss strategies with them, I discuss research with them and they keep me posted on a lot of what’s going on there.
I then asked Gemma whether she agreed with me about the strong link between animal law and public service-focused law in general.
As far as public service goes, and public interest, yes, definitely. Especially when you are working with companion animals and you are looking at the shelter environments, because you have public health and public service concerns when you are looking at dogfights…or animal welfare. A lot of animal welfare issues are tied in with human welfare issues…Domestic abuse and animal abuse usually go hand in hand.
A lot of times when an animal is being treated poorly, or you see an animal chained up outside that is being neglected, they will find child and elder abuse as well. So you have a lot of horrible situations where the animals are like “canaries in the coal mine;” they are saying, heads up, something else sinister is going on here.
One issue with private animal law practice that Gemma discussed is the fact that it is still a developing field. As with any new career, there will not necessarily be enough cases within your own community to support your practice. She, and other animal law practitioners, often find themselves taking on cases and aiding people in different states and regions. However, being one of only a few people in a field also has its advantages:
What I’ve noticed is that because there are not too many people who specialize in animal issues, people know about you and they contact you from all over the country and say, “I need help with this.” A lot of the time the work I am doing is not anything I have solicited on my own, it is people who’ve come to me and said, “I know you run a rescue and are an attorney, I have this issue with my rescue, or I have this issue with my dog.”
This can be ground to tread lightly upon, however. While Gemma can consult for groups outside of her jurisdiction, or write letters or make phone calls, she cannot actually go to court. It is a balancing act to make sure she is not overreaching her legal mandate.
For those not interested in the world of private practice, there are organizational positions for animal lawyers. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) hires lawyers for its litigation and legislation sections at the state and federal level. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is currently advertising a Legal Advocacy position. These positions can be competitive, so one should demonstrate an interest and dedication to animal welfare early on.
Gemma gave me some words of advice for how to get started in the animal law community:
Right away when you are in law school you need to start getting involved with the animal law legal community. There are at least two organizations that work on passing animal welfare legislation in Washington. They always need volunteers. That would be a great place to start. The people who run those organizations, they know all the attorneys; they work with all the animal law attorneys. You are going to meet those attorneys and all the other big actors in Washington that are working on those referendums.
You are going to get legislative experience, which is important because I know a lot of people who do animal law, they want to lobby or they want to work on the legislative side of things…I would recommend, students involved in SALDF, they need to get out there in their community and start volunteering their time for law or legislative type activities. If you can publish an article or a research paper, then great. Get your name out there.
Animal law is a passion-based career, just like any other area of public service law. It will be interesting to see how it develops over the coming years.