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The basics of animal law

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What exactly does animal law encompass? Consider the following questions:

  • I think my neighbor is abusing his dog. What should I do?
  • My dog bit someone; what liability do I have?
  • I want to provide for the care of my pets when I die -- how do I do that?
  • I left my cat in a kennel when I was on vacation, and when I picked it up, it was very sick and thin. Can I sue the kennel? What kind of damages can I recover?
  • My sister’s landlord says that she has to get rid of her dog or he’ll evict her. But she is mentally handicapped and needs her dog for her well-being. What are her rights?
  • Three months ago, I found a stray puppy with no identifying tags and I adopted him. Now, someone claims that he’s her lost dog and says she can prove it. Do I have to give him up?
  • My husband and I are getting a divorce and we both want custody of our dog. What is the law on this? Is there any such thing as joint custody of a pet?

If your reaction to these questions is to scratch your head and say “I don’t know, I’m not a lawyer,” then you’re not alone. Legal questions having to do with animals are a great unknown to most people, including a majority of pet owners. But you may be surprised to know that most lawyers don’t know the answers to these and many other questions having to do with pets and other animals. While we’d love to answer all of these questions for you, animal laws are ever changing, and often times vary by state. What we can do is give you valuable background information on the subject so that you’re better prepared, should you ever have the need to seek counsel. Welcome to the complex world of animal law.

Animal law – and lawyers – to the rescue

Although there have been laws against animal cruelty on the books for centuries, our legal system has traditionally regarded animals as property, not as beings with rights. In recent years, however, that view has undergone a major change. The law has begun to reflect the view that while animals don’t have the same rights as people, they are, at the very least, something more than just property and that they occupy an important place in many people’s lives. And with this change, the field of animal law has come into its own and expanded at a remarkable rate.

There are now animal law attorneys specializing in the field, with courses in animal law being offered in many of the nation’s law schools – including such prestigious institutions as Harvard and Yale. A steady volume of new and proposed animal-related legislation at the local, state and national levels has been enacted, with many bills awaiting legislative action.

An expert speaks

One of the most prominent practitioners in the field of animal law is Bruce Wagman, of the law firm of Schiff Hardin, LLP. Wagman’s practice – which is based in San Francisco – is unique in that it is devoted almost exclusively to animal law. Among his institutional clients are the Animal Legal Defense Fund and PETA. He also represents individuals in a variety of animal-related cases, such as veterinary malpractice and dog bite liability.

Wagman explains the remarkable growth of the field of animal law as a reflection of “the growing societal interest in the way we treat the animals with which we share the planet.” He said that “Judges are coming to understand the issues raised in animal-related cases often better than many lawyers.”

Because of the ever-increasing complexity of this area of the law, Wagman emphasizes the importance of retaining the services of an attorney with experience and expertise in the field. “Many lawyers don’t appreciate all the ‘ins and outs’ of animal law. If you don’t get an animal law specialist, you’re not getting the best possible advocate.” Very sound advice from someone in a position to know.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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