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.
Several years ago, a mandatory spay/neuter ordinance came before the Santa Cruz City Council. I worked part time as an animal care technician at the local SPCA, and euthanasia was, unfortunately, part of the job. I decided I needed to speak at the ordinance hearing.
When it was my turn, I was very nervous. I was in my early 20’s at the time, and very shy about speaking in public. The dog and cat breeders who were present weren’t about to let anyone (let alone a 20-something kennel worker) tell them that purebred animals were part of the overpopulation problem. But despite the hostile environment I found myself in, something compelled me to put one foot in front of the other and make my way up to the microphone.
What pulled me to the front of the room were the memories of the hundreds of shelter animals I had euthanized while working there. Theirs were the faces I saw before injecting, faces that the general public doesn’t get to see. Those faces are burned into my memory forever.
At the time, the SPCA used paper collars to identify the animals that entered the shelter. I had been saving the collars of the animals I had euthanized for some time, as a way to honor and remember them. I decided to take the collars with me to the city council meeting. I wanted to give those animals a voice, and what better way than to have my coworkers hold the linked-together collars up, so the city council could see with their own eyes how many animals someone who only worked part-time had euthanized in just one year. Many of the collars still had tufts of fur on them, a bittersweet reminder of the animals’ descriptions. I was sure to tell the council that a percentage of the collars represented purebred animals, including purebred cats.
I also made sure they knew what shelter workers go through, even for someone only working part-time like me: nightmares, stress-related illnesses, never-ending grief, insomnia. Shelter workers care for the animals, and become attached to them as if they were their own (and sometimes even make them their own, because they cannot bear to kill them). Then they are asked by an apathetic, throw-away society to euthanize the very animals they have lovingly cared for. Millions of animals are euthanized by shelter workers every year in this country because there are still too many people who don’t spay and neuter their animals.
I told the city council that if they could see the hundreds of bodies I had to put into a cooler, when just minutes before those bodies were warm with precious life, then they, too, would support the humane and ethical ordinance before them.
My voice was very shaky at first. But then a funny thing happened. My need to tell the animals’ stories took over, and my voice became strong and clear in spite of my fear and in spite of the opposition’s hostility.
And, I am happy to report that the ordinance passed, thanks to the hard work and dedication of many caring people. Since implementation of the ordinance by the County of Santa Cruz in 1995, the shelter’s intake numbers have been reduced by 64%, and many of the animals entering the shelter are already spayed and neutered.
This was the first time I realized that my voice can be a powerful force for change.
Currently before the California State Assembly is AB 1634, otherwise known as the California Healthy Pets Act, a mandatory spay/neuter bill with exemptions for elderly, sick, service, sporting, or show dogs, among others: http://www.cahealthypets.com/. This important piece of legislation is largely modeled after the successful Santa Cruz County ordinance. I hope all California residents will contact their assembly members and urge them to vote yes on this common sense, much needed bill. California’s companion animals depend on it.
What experiences have you had that have deeply affected you? Hearing about companion animal overpopulation? Reading about the billions of farm animals who are tortured on factory farms? Witnessing a specific act of animal cruelty that has happened in your community? A long-ago visit to a slaughterhouse? I urge you to find your own voice and channel your anger and sorrow by writing letters to your elected representatives, volunteering at your local SPCA or humane society, or, yes, even speaking at a city council meeting.
If someone as shy as me can do it, you can too.