A voice for the voiceless

Photo courtesy of Becca Sutton

MSU Law student honored for advocacy for animals

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Becca Sutton’s childhood was shared with an assortment of companion animals—dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters, parakeets, and a bearded dragon; and a current canine quartet of Husky mixes Kodah and Mischa and mini Australian Shepherds Cooper and Bailey.  

So it’s no surprise that Sutton has always dreamed of advocating for animals. 

A path to career in this field began to take shape during an internship with The Walt Disney Company, working at Kilimanjaro Safaris alongside advocates for wildlife and habitat conservation. 

“While this role was rewarding in regard to educating guests on the status of certain species, it also challenged my knowledge of and considerations for animal welfare and animal rights, especially through an ethical lens,” she says. “It allowed me to question my own perspective on when and if animals should be held captive in zoos and used by humans.” 

The experience deepened her interest in animal welfare and animal rights, passions she pursued at Michigan State University College of Law. 

Now approaching graduation, Sutton has enjoyed serving as student liaison on the State Bar of Michigan’s Animal Law Section. “I’ve had the opportunity to attend section meetings, which allowed me to get to know the section members and learn about relevant issues around the state involving animal law,” she says. 

She also found it rewarding to serve as president for the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, encouraging students to explore animal law as a potential career path. 

The organization hosted a fun social event at the Constellation Cat Cafe in East Lansing, allowing members to mingle and get to know one another while also playing with adorable, adoptable cats.

“Being able to support a local business that does so much for local cats was a huge pro of the event,” Sutton says. 

A law school highlight was attending this year’s Animal Law Conference in Portland, Ore., with another executive board member, with the help of a travel grant from the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Another high point was serving as Managing Editor for the Animal and Natural Resource Law Review, and planning and executing the 2023 annual symposium, “The Cross-Section of Animal Law and the First Amendment.”

“We welcomed ten different panelists to present on issues pertaining to labeling laws, such as litigation surrounding plant-based products and animal welfare claims, and obstacles animal advocates face, such as censorship and punishment,” Sutton says. “We also welcomed Jo-Anne McArthur, founder and president of ‘We Animals Media’ as our keynote speaker. 

“The topic I chose was borne out of my personal interests in both First Amendment issues, which I have a particular interest in due to my experience as a student journalist and student clinician with the Great Lakes First Amendment Clinic at MSU Law, and animal law issues. 

“Serving as Managing Editor has been one of the most rewarding positions I’ve ever held,” she adds. “It was both challenging and incredibly exciting to plan the annual symposium. I’ve also enjoyed working with the other members of our executive board to try and increase the number of students at MSU Law interested in legal issues pertaining to animals and natural resources.” 

A volunteer with Attorneys for Animals, Sutton creates monthly spreadsheets that track proposed rules, final rules, and notices in the Federal Register that impact animals; this spreadsheet becomes the Regulatory Tracker, shared with AFA members and subscribers. 

“This work has felt very valuable because it allows me the opportunity to share important information with people across the state that are likewise concerned with animal protections,” she says

For her sterling work on animal law, Sutton was one of two recipients of the 2023 State Bar of Michigan Animal Law Section Wanda Nash Award, established in 2006 as a tribute to the Section's founder. Sutton will be honored 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., May 11, at the Eli Broad School of Business in East Lansing, when she will receive a framed certificate and an honorarium. 

“I’m incredibly grateful to receive the Wanda Nash Award—it’s such a high honor,” says Sutton, who was nominated by MSU Law Professor David Favre. “I’m very appreciative of the Animal Law Section for recognizing my contribution and dedication to animal law. I’m also ecstatic to share the honor of receiving the award with my co-recipient, (Michigan Law student) Annie Sloan. I’m happy to see other law students across Michigan dedicating their time to animal law, and I hope the number of law students interested in animal law continues to grow.” 

In her 3L spring semester, she externed with the Animal Protection Law department at the Humane Society of the United States. 

 “This is the first internship I’ve had in law school that focuses more on litigation than on policy work, which I’ve enjoyed a lot,” she says. “This role has given me the chance to conduct deep-dive legal research to discover answers to narrow questions that arise from various pending and potential cases.”  

Following her 1L year, she was a regulatory intern with the Humane Society Legislative Fund; and spent the summer after her 2L year in Centennial, Colo., as a legal intern with Friends of Animals’ Wildlife Law Program, where she drafted a rulemaking petition regarding the breeding and public display of captive cetaceans. 

“I absolutely loved this assignment—it was the first time I ever got any exposure to marine mammals,” she says. “I sincerely hope I’m able to continue to work on issues related to marine mammals in the future”. 

She spent her 3L fall semester externing with the Animal Welfare Institute in their Terrestrial Wildlife Program, working on a variety of long-term research projects that resulted in legal memos. 

“This externship greatly enhanced my legal research and writing skills, while also allowing me to gain exposure to a handful of species-specific issues,” she says

 “Each of these internships helped me develop necessary skills to continue my pursuit of utilizing my law degree to advocate for animals,” she says. 

The native of Fredericksburg, Va., has enjoyed her law school experience, where she has been a member of—and on the leadership board—for several other student organizations including the Women’s Law Caucus, Public Interest Law Society, and Council of Graduate Students.

 “The community at MSU Law is what originally drew me to attend and it has definitely been the aspect of law school I’ve enjoyed the most,” she says. “Law school is portrayed in movies and TV shows as this really cutthroat environment, but MSU Law provides a collaborative approach to law school where I feel as though my fellow law students are my teammates, not my competition.” 

Last fall, she received the Jurisprudence Award in a Food & Drug Law class, writing her final paper about the need to have regulatory oversight of cruelty-free labels for cosmetic products, including an official definition that consumers can look to, to ensure the brand, and its products, meet their expectations.

Her career goal is to work at a non-profit dedicated to animal advocacy. “I have every intent to utilize my law degree to advocate for animals and assist in altering the way we, as humans, view and treat animals,” she says. 

“After graduation and the Bar Exam, I’ll be working as a research attorney with the Michigan Court of Appeals in Grand Rapids. While not a position that specializes in animal law, I believe this position will provide me with the opportunity to greatly enhance my legal research and writing skills as well as gain exposure to and knowledge of a variety of different cases and laws.” 

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