You hear about the stories, see them on television, read about them on the Internet – tales of horrendous animal abuse and neglect. Whether the story is of a dog being dragged behind someone’s car and fighting for his life or the cat who is lit on fire or stabbed during a domestic altercation and survives, there are regularly tremendous stories of harmed animals flooding our senses. And it is more than companion animals. There are the atrocities which surface through undercover video in both our industrial farming operations and the treatment of laboratory animals. And then there are the various lawful killings inflicted on wild animals, such as aerial wolf killings and the issues involved with horse slaughter. The list goes on and on. The stories are compelling and they move people to action.
For a law student, someone who may have chosen law school to make a difference or serve a population in need of protection, animal law is a strong draw. Many students share their life and home with companion animals or at the very least, have an interest or love of animals. And in the animal law arena there is so much work to be done. Over 140 law schools in the United States and Canada have offered, or currently offer, at least one course in animal law (compared to only 9 in 2001).2 For some students, the deciding factor of which law school to choose rests with whether a particular school offers animal law in one form or another.
However, it’s not only bright-eyed law students who are drawn to this burgeoning field. Lawyers disillusioned with their current practice and looking for a change of pace, those looking to retire and continue to contribute to an important area of the law, or those simply looking to reach out to a new area are also looking to animal law in growing numbers. Even big firms are joining the fight, taking on large cases as pro bono projects in which smaller firms could not absorb the workload or costs. Saving animals and helping to increase their standard of care is a compelling goal, something many individuals are willing to work to accomplish.
Law students, attorneys and paralegals see an area of law with tremendous potential to change for the better, but they are not the only participants in this movement. With the rise in the role of companion animals as members of the family, more and more people are willing to pay to litigate animal issues or call their legislators and vote on animal issues important to them. Whether the issue is elimination of the gas chamber in animal shelters, dog fighting busts, or puppy mills, people want the abuses to stop. As our dogs and cats have moved from the backyard or barn into our homes and hearts, these issues have become painfully personal and people want change.
This change takes on many different faces in the realm of animal law. Whether it is members of the public taking action through forming rescues to help certain animals or forming grass-roots activist groups, there is a role and a need for legal counsel assistance. Additionally, attorneys have a role in drafting legislation, which will control the standards of care and control of animals for years to come. And finally, litigators have the role of taking cases forward, debating the role of animals and what protections the law may offer. Currently, animals are technically property in North Carolina and throughout the United States. Our roles may include everything from attempting to expand that status to finding the best ways to advocate for animals while embracing their current status.
While animal law incorporates a wide variety of legal activities, many people commonly equate the term animal attorney with animal rights attorney. Whether you are discussing animal rights or animal welfare, a wide variety of opinions exist throughout the animal legal community about the appropriate path to advancing animal interests. And, in truth, there is no one path to improving the law as it relates to animals, but rather many separate paths. Whether you are working to free a dog on death row for chasing a jogger or to ban the use of gestation crates in pigs, you are advancing animal interests.
Even though animal law may be growing and there is nearly limitless work to do in the field, it is still fairly rare to be a full-time animal lawyer. Much of the work to be done must be done pro bono and there are limited employment opportunities with national organizations that offer a salary. For a law student with student loans or a practitioner with financial responsibilities, this may be the bar to having a full-time animal law practice. However, the good news is that many attorneys and law students can have an immediate and substantial impact simply by incorporating some animal law into their regular practice. Having a successful practice in another area of law may allow an attorney to take a critical pro bono animal case where someone else would be unable to do so. And some firms allow and even encourage their attorneys to perform a certain number of pro bono hours per year. This greatly benefits and helps advance animal law.
Because animal law offers an arena often viewed as having a great deal of injustice, it continues to grow even without employment opportunities. There is no denying people have a great deal of passion for animals, no matter whether they support enhanced protections for animals or preserving human rights to exercise complete control over animals. It is not likely that the field of animal law will show any degree of slowing in the coming decades. Fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be an unpredictable and tumultuous ride.