Monday, February 16, 2009

Animal Law Becoming Hot Legal Topic

Here is an interesting story written this weekend by Joseph B. Frazier of the Associated Press outlining the increasing changes in animal law.

Some things shouldn't happen even to a dog. But they do.

In Pennsylvania last year, a warden ordered two kennel operators to examine some of their charges for fleas. Instead, Elmer Zimmerman of Kutztown shot 70 dogs; his brother Ammon, who had a kennel next door, shot 10.

Horrible, yes, said Jessie Smith, the state's special deputy secretary for dog law enforcement, when the killings were reported. "But it's legal."

No more. Partly because of outrage over the shootings, dogs in Pennsylvania kennels now can be euthanized only by a veterinarian, and the state keeps a tighter leash on the "puppy mills."

Changes in animal law have come, and not just to Pennsylvania. Other incidents of abuse and a shifting national consciousness have made this one of the fastest-growing fields in the legal profession. In 1993, just seven states had felony animal cruelty laws; today, all but four do.

"Animal law is where environmental law was 20 years ago. It's in its infancy but growing," said Pamela Frasch, who heads the National Center for Animal Law at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland.

Lewis & Clark opened the first Animal Legal Defense Fund chapter in 1992. Today, it has branches at more than 115 law schools in the United States and Canada.

In 2000, nine law schools had animal law studies. Today, about 100 do.

"The reason it is getting taught is student demand," said Professor David Favre, who teaches animal law at Michigan State University College of Law. "It's not because tenured professors wanted to teach it, it's that students want to take it."

Favre said most animal law cases in private practice deal with issues such as dangerous dogs, divorce settlements, purchases or other property-related activities.

But it is the animal rights cases that draw attention. And while there have been advances in recent years, some issues remain unsettled. Should pets have more rights than livestock or wild animals? Are some species more deserving of protection?

In George Orwell's words, are some animals more equal than others?

State laws vary widely.

For example: At a Montana campsite, Gunner, a chocolate lab, was killed by a camper who cut off the dog's head with a chain saw and threw it at the owners.

Russell Howald, 30, was sentenced to the maximum -- two years.

But in Iowa, undercover video shot by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals shows farm workers hitting sows with metal rods, slamming piglets on a concrete floor and bragging about jamming rods into sows' hindquarters.

"I hate them. These [expletives] deserve to be hurt. Hurt, I say!" the employee yells as he hits a sow with a metal rod.

Scott Heiser of Portland, who is the criminal justice program director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said Iowa's animal cruelty law exempts livestock from protection. If charges were brought, they most likely would be misdemeanors.

Animal law, Frasch said, is a mix of incongruities.

"In the past, if someone did something bad to your animal, there wasn't much you could do," Frasch said. "But if your animal was stolen and well-treated, it could be a felony. It was out of balance.

"A mouse as a pet has protection. A mouse as a pest can be killed at will. Research mice have no protection. It is the same animal, but it is a matter of context."

Heiser said political pressure to require aggressive investigations and prosecutions began building about 15 years ago. Before that, some prosecutors were giving away cases "for a song at the plea level," he said.

Pockets of resistance remain, he said. Some prosecutors tell him "it's just a dog" or "I've got real crime to prosecute. I'm too busy."

But new laws in many states, he said, put animal abuse on par with drunken driving cases where prosecutors are prohibited from "dealing," or plea-bargaining, down to a lesser offense.

He said the law students he has met who are devoted to animal law "are very skilled and talented young men and women.

"Of course the empathy is there, but most have faith in the legal system to effect change," unlike some animal rights activists who resort to violence.

Few areas of the law inspire greater emotional response -- or more contradictions.

"Companion animals are especially caught up in this," Heiser said. "There are people who would risk their lives to save their dog or cat. But they still eat meat." AP

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