Legal Eagles Aid Animals

Posted on March 15, 2012

Originally published in The Chapel Hill News.

As an undergraduate at University of North Carolina, Elizabeth Overcash led an animal interest group called Helping Paws.

“I decided to attend law school because I wanted to improve the situation of animals, and I thought that one of the best ways to do this was through the law,” she said.

Upon entering UNC Law School, she discovered that it had no animal group, so she founded the UNC Law Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, a student chapter of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

The Fund, founded in 1979 by attorneys helping to shape the emerging field of animal law, pushes for stronger enforcement of anti-cruelty laws and more humane treatment of animals throughout the country (

Overcash, in her third year of law school, and fellow board members Elizabeth Choi, Nick Miller, Zach Ferguson and Fallon Speaker have organized a free, all-day animal law symposium on Saturday, March 17, at the UNC School of Law, 160 Ridge Road. You can register for the event – which covers agriculture, hunting law, animals in research, and North Carolina animal laws – at

“People don’t want to see animal cruelty,” said Kimberley Alboum, the state director for the Humane Society of the United States who will speak on the panel “Agriculture and Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. “I think the key for passing legislation is to become more organized about public education.”

“It is very interesting because there are a lot of people passionate about animal welfare issues who are not voting,” she said. “If everyone contacted their legislator, there is no doubt we could make this happen.”

Local animal welfare advocate Sarah Reichman votes but will attend to improve her skills working with communities and legislators. “The only way for things to really change for animals is through education and legislation,” she said.

Molly Mullin, a cultural anthropologist at Albion College on sabbatical at Duke, is the keynote speaker. She plans to talk about the cultural, historical context of farming trends, such as backyard chickens.

This subject fascinates Mullin.

Over the past 100 years “we’ve had this increasing separation of house and animals and other ways in which people produce food,” she said. “Is this really a reversal? Or is it not going back to something that existed before?”

Mullin said when she began her sabbatical in Durham, she and her family moved their six hens down from Michigan with them. Mullin said there are ways of using prior and new research to help negotiate current disagreements, such as the belief that backyard chickens don’t belong in neighborhoods. “In general, I would agree with the sociologist who wrote that we shouldn’t expect people to get more unanimous about animals in the near future, that more disagreements can be expected,” she said.

Disagreements don’t daunt Amanda Arrington. The executive director of the Coalition to Unchain Dogs and Associate Director of the HSUS Pets for Life is a panelist on the round table discussion about North Carolina animal law.

“I think one of the most important things I have learned, whether working on a local county ordinance or state wide legislation, is that progress is about compromise and patience,” she said. “It is rarely perfect and doesn’t happen overnight but with time, understanding and determination we can create positive change and a more humane community.”

Animal Law Attorney Calley Gerber, who founded the Gerber Animal Law Center, will also discuss North Carolina animal law.

“As a state, I feel that North Carolina is lacking in animal protection laws,” he said. “Two glaring examples of this are our lack of legislation regarding private ownership of exotic animals and our failure to pass legislation regulating puppy mills.”

Geoff Fleck, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s Criminal Justice Program, is a special guest speaker. He says events like this highlight the somewhat new social revolution to improve animals’ lives.

“Fifteen years ago there were no animal law programs in colleges. Now 35 colleges have an animal curriculum,” he said.

Fleck is speaking on the link between animal abuse and human violence, including domestic violence and how we all have a responsibility to confront it. “The idea here is that if you are aware, not to be silent,” he said.

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