The biggest difficulty animal advocates face in helping animals get their day in court is "standing." Simply put, legal standing is a person's right or ability to sue. For a "person" under the law to have standing it must prove three things which are, again, in very simple terms: (1) that you have been "injured," (2) that the injury was caused by the action of the defendant for which you are suing, (3) and that the court has the ability to redress the injury to you with a favorable decision. But, back to that first little detail, you must be a "person."
I used the word "it" to describe a person on purpose because while most of us think of a person as an individual human, U.S. courts have granted personhood to nonhuman entities that are the subject of legal rights and duties. A few examples of such recognized "legal persons" are corporations, ships, estates, and political parties.
Animals, however, are considered "things" by the law and they are classified in every state as property, much like a desk or a chair. And, like a desk or chair, an animal cannot bring a lawsuit or have one brought for them by a person as is the case, for example, with children. That means to sue for an injury to an animal, such as one that has been injured or killed, animal advocates generally have to prove injury to a person. An example would be to sue for harm done to a human person by witnessing abuse. Sadly, without such proof of injury to "persons" the courts can, and do, simply dismiss a case without ever hearing the facts of the abuse or injury.
There are exceptions to these limitations where the law has granted animals specific legal protections, like our criminal anti-cruelty laws. But where there are not such specific protections it can be very difficult for an animal, no matter how abused, to get their day in court.
One day, hopefully, animals will have more opportunities to be represented in courts so that we can more effectively fight the many injustices they face – perhaps as another kind of recognized "legal person." In the meantime we must be resourceful and creative in bringing lawsuits to win justice for animals.
What the heck are judges thinking when they order a convicted animal abuser to serve community service at the local animal shelter? I’ll save the discussion about the use of community service as a sentencing option in violent crimes for another day and focus solely on the issue of where the community service is to be performed.
Would a competent judge order a thief to work off a community service beef at a jewelry story? Would a competent judge sentence a burglar to do community service by installing home alarm systems for ADT? Would a competent judge order a child abuser to work in a day-care center? The obvious answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “Hell no!” So, then, why is it that we see so many animal abuse cases where the trial judge orders the defendant to pay back his or her debit to society by working for the animal shelter? Sure, some of this is invited error by either a misguided prosecutor or the defense attorney looking to minimize his client’s exposure. However, the buck stops at the bench and trial judges continue to make the mistake of thinking that society and the animal abuser are both going to somehow benefit by requiring a person with a demonstrated capacity to harm animals to care for captive animals in less than tightly supervised conditions.
This is such an obvious recipe for disaster not just for the animals placed at risk but also for the animal shelter staff and board. So, next time you read a story in your local news about a similar case, fire off a letter to the editor pointing out the issue and help educate your local judges.
ALDF’s Future of Animal Law conference was held at Harvard Law School at the end of March. We had assembled many of the most brilliant, vibrant and committed minds currently working on animal legal issues (and related animal issues) and they had come together to explore cutting edge, innovative ideas.
The conference was sold out and the atmosphere was electric. We gathered in Austin Hall, one of the oldest buildings in the U.S. still being used for the teaching of law. The Ames Courtroom, on the second floor, is a large and imposing room that overwhelms the senses, with its raised wooden stage for the judges (or panelists) to speak from, its dark wood paneling throughout most of the room and windows spanning the length and height of three walls, providing an abundance of natural sunlight. High above, on the ceiling are massive wooden beams, each one, as large as a tree trunk, which, oddly enough, are carved to look like the heads of snarling wolves.
As I listened to the panelists, occasionally, I would glance up at those giant wooden beams, feeling a sense of wonder and satisfaction. I couldn’t help but feel that we had somehow brought life to those giant carvings: the wolves were in the courtroom, not simply as artwork, but as the subject of scholarly legal discussion.
You’d think a room full of veteran New York lawyers would be a tough crowd to impress, but recently at a continuing legal education seminar I brought the bunch to a deafening silence, hanging on my every word. How’d I do it? By mentioning in a small group discussion that I was an animal lawyer, and then describing what one does as an animal law practitioner. As I was talking, all the other groups around us gradually stopped talking to hear what I was saying. The best part is that they weren’t chuckling or smirking, they were genuinely interested.
Actually, this scenario happens to me a lot, where the conversation turns to what we all do for a living, and hands down I’ve got the most interesting job in the room. I know that some of my fellow staffers have experienced the same thing, but you don’t have to work at ALDF to be able to do important, relevant work for animals, thus becoming the most interesting person at a party or seminar.
Animals and their welfare are increasingly becoming part of even the most traditional areas of law practice. If you are a lawyer, consider adding animal law as a component of your practice or pro bono work, whether your current expertise is custody cases, wills and trusts, civil litigation, and so on. Perhaps there is a need for an instructor of Animal Law at your local college or law school. Why not propose yourself to teach it? If you are not a lawyer, consider volunteering for an animal group like ALDF or a local shelter, or working with a firm that does animal cases. Visit our website for more ideas on how to get involved doing fascinating work.
C’mon, be a star!
I have every intention of being one of those preternaturally preserved, vibrantly healthy, juice-drinking 115 year old vegans, schooling whippersnappers in Scrabble and sharing arcane tales of life before the internet. But, as they say, Things Happen. Things like Alameda County Transit buses that do not stop at crosswalks for pedestrians who are just trying to make it into the Berkeley Whole Foods without meeting a youthful death under their merciless wheels, on not just one death-defying occasion, but on a regular basis. Just for example. With this in mind, I have decided it is time-overdue for me to write my will.
My assets have always been more metaphysical than material—so why a will for an estate of much friendship, but not so many mutual funds? My primary concern is that my cats Seamus and Theo would go to the caretaker I’d designated, with enough money in trust to provide for their ongoing care. (For info about how more and more states are adopting guidelines that allow for enforceable trusts for companion animals, check out ALDF’s Resources for “Including Your Animals in Your Will.”) To get myself going, I turned for guidance to the Nolo Press website, a fantastic source for self-help legal information on subjects ranging from obtaining a copyright to filing for bankruptcy. Within minutes I’d located Quicken WillMaker Plus, inexpensive software that will walk me through the process of making sure my animals are in good hands should I make an early exit from the earthly realm. Now all my loved ones need to worry about is making sure Elton John is available for the funeral.