Back From the FringeJuly 19th, 2002
Bob Barker: "Come on 'round" to animal rights
Movement's new message: There ought to be a law
When it comes to reading the mood of the public, Paul Leonard's a pro, and he's got the résumé to prove it. Before retiring from politics 12 years ago, he was elected to the Ohio state legislature four times, served two terms as the mayor of Dayton and then returned to the capitol as lieutenant governor.
Today he's an animal lawyer.
One sign of the growing support for animal rights is the ease with which a successful politician from the nation's Rust Belt can make a second career as an animal lawyer. But it's far from the only sign. As the following profiles show, animal rights advocates can be found nowadays in some surprising places — from sheriff's departments and courtrooms to leading universities to America's favorite game show. The movement is growing up, and gaining ground. That's bad news for those who hope to marginalize us. But it's great news for the animals.
Eyes on the Prize
Bob Barker, Game Show Host
Thanks to his 30-year run as host of the popular game show The Price Is Right — not to mention an 18-year stint on Truth or Consequences and 21 years as emcee of the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants — Bob Barker is more than a household name. He's a TV icon.
When someone like that takes a stand, Americans notice. And Bob Barker hasn't been afraid to take a stand.
"I was always kind to animals when I was growing up, but back when I was a boy no one had heard of 'animal rights,’,' " says the 78-year-old broadcasting veteran. "Then about 25 years ago I was asked to be chairman of Be Kind to Animals Week here in Los Angeles. As such, I was invited by some animal groups to take part in their activities. And when I did, they really opened my eyes to the exploitation of animals in this country. As I became more aware, I felt the urge to do what I could to rectify the situation."
It turned out he could do quite a lot. He donated time and money to various animal-oriented groups and causes. He created his own animal welfare organization, the DJ&T Foundation (named in memory of his wife, Dorothy Jo, and mother, Tilly), which provides grants to spay and neuter clinics across the country. And he didn't check his convictions at the door when he went to work.
"For years they had been giving away a fur coat on the Miss USA pageant, and I'd been urging them to stop. Then in 1987 they agreed that it would be the last year they did it," Barker recalls. "So I went to Albuquerque to do the pageant delighted that it was the last time they would give away a fur. But then I was appalled to learn that they were going to have the semi-finalists in the swimsuit competition make their entrance wearing fur coats over their swimsuits. I told them I couldn't be on stage while that happened. It would make me a complete hypocrite."
Barker and the show's producers tussled over the issue for days. Soon, to everyone's surprise, the debate was making waves far beyond the set.
"It was leaked to the press," Barker says. "It became a front-page story in newspapers across the country. People were hearing about it on the radio and on television. It was the first time a lot of these people had been made aware of the cruelty to animals in the production of fur. And I'm delighted to say that the fur industry went into decline soon after that. I don't claim that I'm responsible for that, but I think I helped."
While he's well aware of the impact he can have as a celebrity, Barker believes that the most important battles of all won't be fought in the court of public opinion — they'll be fought in actual courtrooms.
"Once you've done any kind of work on behalf of animals, you know that the law is the answer," he says. "If we can get young minds interested in animal law, then we're headed in the right direction."
Barker has reached out to those young minds with the help of FreMantle Media, the production company behind The Price Is Right. When FreMantle executives asked him how they could show their appreciation for his years on the program, he wasn't stumped for a minute. And he hit the jackpot last year, when the Bob Barker Endowment Fund for the Study of Animal Rights was established at Harvard University. The $500,000 endowment supports courses and seminars on animal law and subsidizes the work of scholars in the field.
Though animal rights advocates still have a long way to go, Barker says strides like this one — carving out a permanent niche for animal law at one of the world's most prestigious universities — are a sign that we're moving faster and farther than we sometimes think.
"People get discouraged from time to time. I hear them say that they're burned out," he says. "Well, all you have to do is look at what we've accomplished over the past 25 years or so and I think that should give you all the inspiration you need to continue the work."
Cass Sunstein, Teacher and Legal Scholar
The big noise on campus these days — especially at law schools — is the sound of muzzles coming off.
"People who were interested in animal rights felt a bit like they should be quiet about that fact because it wasn't in the mainstream as much as it is now," says Cass Sunstein, an authority on constitutional and administrative law and the author of several well-regarded books about the legal system. "I've been surprised in the last few years to learn the extent to which a wide range of people — academics who teach law, students who are studying law — are very concerned about cruelty to living creatures. They just weren't saying so until they heard that other people were interested, too."
Sunstein himself is certainly doing plenty of talking about the subject these days. A professor at the University of Chicago Law School, he incorporates discussion of animal rights into a class he teaches on environmental law. A prolific author, he's written about animal rights issues in such high-profile forums as the New York Review of Books and The New Republic. He's also co-editing a book of essays on animal rights by legal scholars and philosophers — some of the very people who might have felt uncomfortable identifying themselves with the subject just a few years ago.
"The progress has been slow, but we're definitely moving in the right direction," Sunstein says. "As more people in academics start discussing animal law and more law schools add courses on the subject, you're going to see more people practicing law who are committed to the well-being of animals. And that's going to have a huge impact."
More animal law attorneys mean more cases being filed, more clients being served and more attention being brought to the issue. As Sunstein sees it, all that activity is going to create new opportunities to show America what the animal rights movement is all about.
"The odd thing about the animal rights issue is that there is a widespread belief that animal rights advocates are extremists and we have a social consensus that cruelty and neglect of animals is unacceptable," he says. "In a way, mainstream America is strongly committed to animal rights and would be appalled to know the sorts of mistreatment animals are subjected to. So there's a lot of common ground. There's just a communication problem. As the issues are discussed in a more concrete way, animal rights activists won't have to worry about being branded extremists anymore."
Copping to Compassion
Lt. Sherry Schlueter, Police Officer
"Some of my earliest memories from childhood are of being so outraged when I saw anything abused — animals, bugs, whatever," says south Florida native Sherry Schlueter. "My classmates from first and second grade say they remember me as the little girl who wouldn't let anyone step on a roach. I was the one who would carry a spider out of the room and let it go."
As Schlueter grew older, her career path seemed obvious. She would become a veterinarian. But a couple of summers spent working for vets cured her of that while she was still in her teens.
So Schlueter eventually found a new field: law enforcement. In 1979 she entered the police academy for Broward County, just north of Miami. The following year she was a sheriff's deputy. Though initially she had the same duties as every other rookie cop, Schlueter eventually got her dream assignment. She was made a one-woman animal cruelty task force, investigating cases and pushing for prosecutions. And when she grew dissatisfied with the sentences being handed down, she did something about that, too. She helped draft a felony animal cruelty statute for the state. In 1989, a slightly revised version of her bill became law.
And the first cop to make an arrest and get a conviction under the new law? Schlueter, of course.
Over the years, the one-woman crusade has grown into a 40-member department — the Special Victims and Family Crimes section, created and headed by Schlueter. It's no accident that spouse, child and elder abuse now fall under Schlueter's purview. From the beginning, she's been trying to open other officers' eyes to the link between cruelty to animals and domestic violence. She now gets to make that point as a frequent lecturer at the Broward County police academy as well as at seminars across the country. While Schlueter urges the people she calls her "brothers and sisters in law enforcement" to fully commit themselves to protecting animals, she's heartened that society at large is already moving in that direction.
"I didn't think I'd see the changes I've seen in my lifetime. Back in the 1960s, I knew that cosmetics and oven cleaners and all that were being tested on animals, but I never thought mainstream America would notice. But it has," Schlueter says. "People are starting to make conscious choices about the products they buy. They're not all necessarily embracing an animal rights philosophy, but they're embracing a humane and protective attitude towards animals. And I'm very encouraged by that."
Raising the Bar
Jane Hoffman, Attorney
Over the last two decades, some animal rights groups have resorted to outrageous stunts and "in-your-face" campaigns to push the movement into the spotlight. For much of that time, attorney Jane Hoffman has also been working to make the plight of animals more widely known, particularly in her native New York. And she's succeeded without sensationalism or stunts.
How did she do it? She credits a frequently forgotten flipside to all the lawyer-bashing that goes on in America.
"People may hate us,” she says, “but they respect us, too. We're professionals who are trained to see both sides of any argument. That gives us a certain credibility."
It also gives attorneys committed to animal law a special opportunity — one Hoffman and others have been quick to seize. Hoffman helped launch an animal law committee for the New York City Bar Association in 1990. Today, the association's 36-member Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals sponsors programs and conferences, offers booklets and brochures and reviews and occasionally drafts legislation, all from a pro-animal perspective.
That's helped bring animal law to the attention of attorneys, judges, prosecutors and the public in a positive, professional way. Bar association committees and sections devoted to animal law have taken hold in Washington state, Texas, Michigan and the District of Columbia, and efforts are under way to launch several more.
"The fact that we're lawyers and we think this is important legitimizes the issue in a way that lot of other groups can't because they're advocacy groups,” says Hoffman, who specializes in estate planning and executive compensation. "For instance, our programs have been listed in Crain's New York Business and the Wall Street Journal. I don't think [those publications] would do that for a lot of groups. But because we're part of a professional organization, they're more open to it."
The committee has evolved into one that's both unified in its support of animals and widely perceived as open and balanced. That's opened the door to collaborations with other bar association committees and various law enforcement agencies.
"We've formed great connections with other attorneys, with the New York Police Department, with the DAs here, with a lot of people, and it just keeps on growing," Hoffman says. "I think we've helped them see that this is something that needs to be discussed. And, by and large, they're listening."
A Political Animal
Paul Leonard, Attorney and Ex-Mayor
Paul Leonard got his first taste of civil service years before he traveled to Columbus to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives — or even learned how to drive a car. At the age of 12, the future lieutenant governor and Dayton mayor joined the safety patrol at his elementary school. It was while he was doing his rounds that he had his face-to-face introduction to animal cruelty.
"I came across a kid who had a big stick in his hand, and he was literally beating the life out of a dog with it," Leonard says. "After I put a stop to that, I did a lot of thinking about how defenseless some animals are."
Years later, after Leonard left politics and began practicing law full-time, his work as an attorney brought back memories of that disturbing childhood incident. Though his specialty was employment law, he learned of an interesting new field that might give him a chance to help animals again, this time on a much larger scale.
"I read some articles about the universities that were starting to teach animal law and I decided to look into that," he says. "Employment law is really civil rights work, so in a way it's the same thing. I'd been doing all this civil rights work for two-legged animals, and now hopefully I could do some civil rights work for four-legged animals."
These days, Leonard is doing just that. He's represented both animals and animal rights groups, with a primary focus on cases involving claims of negligence and non-economic damages, such as loss of companionship and emotional distress.
"My goal is to use civil law to put people in a position where it's going to cost them money if they mistreat animals," says Leonard, who recently launched a new nonprofit organization, the Center for Animal Law and Advocacy.
Of course, being a high-profile former politico in the culturally conservative Midwest, Leonard hasn't been spared the jokes and jibes of those who don't understand animal law.
"There are people who feel the need to ridicule me," he admits. "But it doesn't bother me. I get a lot of comments from people who are very supportive, too. When I'm out in public people will recognize me and come tell me they appreciate what I’m doing. So that's been encouraging."
Just as important, he's optimistic about animals' chances in America's courts.
"I think we can get a couple of judges to say, 'This is common sense — of course animals aren't just property,' " Leonard says. "And that's going to change everything."