The Animal Legal Defense Fund would never be able to use the law to advance the interests of animals without the support of legal professionals nationwide. In this continuing series of spotlights, ALDF’s Animal Law Program salutes attorney Susann MacLachlan.

It’s easy to see why those who know Susann MacLachlan call her “Sunny.” With a personality that radiates warmth, she enthuses about rescuing animals, teaching animal law at the John Marshall Law School and coaching students for the Harvard Law School’s National Animal Advocacy Closing Argument Competition, which she’s done for the last two years. In 2008, the two students she coached won first and second place in the annual event, which is hosted by Harvard’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapter (SALDF). The competition gives law students the chance to hone their skills arguing legal points before judges and juries.

“Both years I have had the students actually go through a tryout process to be selected for the team,” explains Sunny. “The first year only four students tried out, but after our good showing at Harvard, this year we had 20 students trying out for the team.” Sunny puts the students through the paces, practicing three to four times a week. “The students select the side they represent and draft their own closings. I just help them polish it.”

The hard work paid off again this year. For first time in the history of the contest, two students tied for first place in the closing argument competition. Sunny coached them both. “I don’t know how we’re going to top that,” she says, laughing.

It may seem strange now, but animal law wasn’t even being offered at John Marshall when Sunny first arrived to teach at the college seven years ago. “Thanks to our SALDF organization, which I became active with and eventually the faculty advisor for and especially to Pam Alexander of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, we petitioned the school to offer the course almost four years ago,” says the 1994 cum laude graduate.

Now a John Marshall clinical professor, Sunny says the animal law course was considered experimental for the first three years. “But last year after our first- and second-place finishes at the Closing Argument competition I presented the course to the full faculty for acceptance as a permanent offering of the curriculum. It was approved unanimously. So I feel very attached to this course, and I’m excited to watch the number of students who select the course increase each year. We have 28 students this semester alone!”

When she’s not teaching or coaching, Sunny devotes her time to rescuing and transporting dogs. “The two groups I volunteer for, West Hancock Canine Rescue and Illinois Valley Animal Rescue, are in rural areas where there aren’t many potential homes for dogs,” she says. So every weekend, Sunny and her husband, Rick, load her car up with crates and she drives two hours south of Chicago to meet a group of newly rescued dogs. After transferring them to her vehicle, Sunny then drives to Joliet, where she meets the driver who will transport the animals on the next leg of what Sunny describes as “sort of like an underground railroad for dogs.”

Transporting rescued animals is rewarding, says Sunny, because she’s helping get dogs (and cats) to their adoptive homes. “Hopefully I’m getting them to a better life. The heartbreaking transports are those where backyard breeders and puppy mill owners have dumped these poor dogs at high-kill pounds. The physical condition of these animals is unbelievable unless you’ve actually seen them. No fur and hideously scaly skin from poor nutrition, urine burns on their feet and legs, cowering in fear in the back of the crates. Thank God for the rescues and fosters that open their doors to these little angels and rehabilitate them both physically and emotionally.”

A dedicated volunteer, she’s been doing this nearly every weekend for four years. This spring she plans to attend disaster response training from Noah’s Wish so she’ll be certified to assist in disaster relief efforts for animals. Sunny has even introduced a few rescued critters into the MacLachlan household.

With all the time spent helping dogs and cats, in addition to teaching animal law, Sunny is fortunate to have a supportive spouse. Rick is a captain with the Chicago Police Department, where he sees more than his fair share of animal cruelty. “My husband loves animals, too,” says Sunny, “and he works in a high-crime district here in Chicago where a lot of dog fighting and animal abuse occurs. He’s a good man to have in this position for the animals. The officers who serve under him know that he considers animal abuse a very serious crime, and their rescues and arrests prove that they are being influenced by his leadership. I’m very proud of him.”

A vegetarian for 25 years, Sunny is happy to see how animal law has grown in the last few years. “I’m hoping it’s a change in our collective consciousness that people in general are moving more toward compassion and care when dealing with both our environment and the animals who populate our world. I know many friends and relatives have moved toward a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle so as not to add to the violence and suffering in the world.”

Sunny sums up her work on behalf of animals by noting the the Animal Legal Defense Fund poster adorning her office. Accompanying images of dogs, a cat, a horse, a cow and two pigs is the tagline “We May Be the Only Lawyers on Earth Whose Clients Are All Innocent.” The poster hangs on her door in clear view. “That poster always seems to elicit positive and thoughtful responses from the students,” says Sunny.

“Sunny’s support and dedication to the John Marshall law students is inspiring,” says Pamela Alexander, director of ALDF’s Animal Law Program. “Winning the last two competitions at Harvard is a true testament to her expertise and commitment to her students and animal law. We look forward to seeing what Sunny and her team will accomplish in 2010.”

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