Animal Advocate: MSU Law student receives SBM's Wanda Nash Award

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Photo courtesy of Taylor Paige Waters unless otherwise noted

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Taylor Paige Waters’s life has always been about animals. At 5, she sent her allowance to the “Free Keiko” Orca whale campaign; and constantly told her father and grandmother that when she grew up she was going to make the world better for animals.

“It became clearer to me as I got older that the law was the best societal mechanism for enacting change,” says Waters, who will graduate in May from Michigan State University College of Law. “I can’t necessarily rescue all the animals in the world, but I can help change the laws in some jurisdictions and make the world a little better for some.”

That passion brought her this year’s Wanda Nash Award from the State Bar of Michigan Animal Law Section, after being nominated by MSU Law Professor David Favre. She received the award April 18.

“It’s an incredible honor to receive the Wanda Nash Award and be part of her legacy,” says Waters, who is continuing her studies with a master’s degree in bioethics from Ohio State University. “In many ways, she’s the reason I ended up at MSU – it was the animal law opportunities here which she really began. I relate to her drive to begin something meaningful and I hope I can do her proud with animal law in Ohio State.”

Waters, who has shared her life with her 15-year-old black Labrador, Max, since she was 13, would often bring home stray cats, including one she rescued when she was 10 and hid it in her room, but her dad found it.

“I didn’t see the cat, so I assumed she was under the bed,” she says. “My dad repeated that he knows there’s a cat in the room, and I continued to deny it. Finally, he said, ‘Taylor, she’s looking right at me!’ The cat was on the top bunk. I couldn’t see her, but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t eye level with him.”

In undergrad at Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies in Bellingham, Wash., Waters studied in the “Law, Diversity, and Justice” concentration program, modifying it for animal law.

“I knew where I wanted to go – law school – and I knew what I wanted to do – help animals,” she says.

Waters twice worked as a litigation clerk for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

“The Animal Legal Defense Fund was a dream of mine,” she adds. “I got to work on ag-gag cases, puppy mill cases, and others. It was rewarding because I was finally seeing the end-run of my efforts and working with attorneys who were doing what I want to do, but it was also disheartening—often the cases often don’t make it and the wins are hard fought.”

While working at the Animal Legal Defense Fund Waters worked on a case involving an alleged puppy mill operator routinely devocalizing dogs to cut down on nuisance claims. This case spawned a project with MSU Law’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund to urge local towns to end the practices of devocalizing dogs and declawing cats.

“De-vocalizing dogs is an invasive surgery, it’s traumatic on the animals, and it isn’t always effective. Sometimes the dogs need multiple surgeries and even then, it’s incredibly painful,” she says. “Our recommendation is that de-vocalizing dogs be limited to situations where all other methods of preventing barking have failed and it’s the owner’s last resort.”

A similarly painful situation arises with declawing cats, lopping the digit off at the knuckle.

“It’s very painful for cats, often even long-term,” Waters says. “Cats after they’re declawed may have trouble using the litter box due to the pain of getting litter in the wounds. Further, it puts them in a dangerous situation if they get out and can’t defend themselves. Cats who are declawed often begin to bite more because they realize they can’t use their claws to discourage touching or interactions they don’t like.

“Our recommendation is, again, that these extreme surgical measures only be resorted to when all other attempts to curb the behavior fail. We’d rather see the animals keep their homes which might be at risk due to barking to tearing up the couch, but painful invasive surgery should only be the last ditch effort before re-homing an animal.”

As president of the MSU Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, Waters aimed for meaningful and direct help to the community including last fall’s pet food, treat, and toy drive for the Capital Area Humane Society.

“It was incredibly rewarding to drop off all the food and checks to the shelter—and it doesn’t hurt that we got to pet the kittens, puppies, cats, dogs, and bunnies we were helping,” she says.

 Waters also served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Animal and Natural Resource Law, and was proud to further the scholarship.

“My volume is one of the few which includes only Animal Law articles. It wasn’t planned—it just turned out that way,” she says. “My undergrad fostered a love of the subjects—of the things—we were studying and the Journal was a way for me to connect back to being in love with academia. I get to contribute to the published body of law, which to me is a beautiful thing.” 

 Waters’s note on the ethical issues of resurrecting the extinct species of passenger pigeons won the Ohio State Bar Association’s Environmental Law award that she received in mid-April at its annual symposium. She had learned in community college about the work of 20th century conservationist Aldo Leopold and his essay on passenger pigeons, once the dominant species in eastern North American forests before 19th century hunters initiated their mass slaughter. The last passenger pigeon in captivity “Martha,” died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914 at the age of 29; her remains are stored in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s collection.

“It seemed amazing that a bird which darkened the sky and flocks taking days to pass overhead – the most numerous bird to ever exist – could go extinct and be essentially forgotten within 100 years,” Waters says. “So throughout undergrad I wrote several papers and projects on them and by the time I got to law school, it seemed like the most logical topic to write my Note on.”

 An organization, Revive and Restore, is working on passenger pigeon de-extinction by introducing their traits into band-tailed pigeons.

“Ethical problems like the passenger pigeon’s original extinction and bringing them back is my passion,” Waters says. “My paper focused on how to bring them back within the legal system and what the Endangered Species Act would have to do effectively keep them around when they come back.”

Last summer Waters visited the Ohio Historical Society to see “Buttons,” one of the last passenger pigeons in the wild, shot in 1900 by a 14-year-old boy and taxi-dermied by a woman who sewed black shoe buttons for eyes.

“Seeing one for the first time after years of writing about them and researching them was sad,” Waters says. “The story of ‘Buttons’ so epitomizes the story of humans with animals and the environment. We take and take and take and then, like a little boy with a gun, we snuff out the last of something before we even realize what we’ve done.”

Waters’s law studies have not all been about animals. She worked on the Michigan Council on Future Mobility drafting project, and an externship at the Michigan Department of Attorney General, Corporate Oversight Division in Lansing provided experience in a wide body of law.

“The variety of cases was really amazing,” she says. “I got to work on everything from Medicare fraud to small business squabbles to large corporations taking advantage of consumers. Reading consumer complaints and directly helping consumers was incredibly rewarding, I worked there so long that I got to see the ends of the work as well—it’s really an amazing feeling when you get that court decision or settlement that makes life a little more fair for Michiganders.”

Waters enjoyed a study abroad in Poland with the opportunity to learn with international students. A trip to Krakow included old castles, ancient ruins, and the World War II concentration camp at Auschwitz that Waters says she will never forget.

After graduation, Waters—whose first child, a daughter, arrived the day after the award—will move to the Buckeye state, where her husband Jesse Lyon works for Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Waters would like to further Animal Law in Ohio.

“I want to find a place in my community where I’m an active force making it a better place,” she says. “If that’s beginning my own NGO like what Michigan has in Attorneys For Animals, which will work on both legislative and litigation efforts in Ohio, or finding a place in government, another organization, or firm, I want my choice to count for something and my life to count for something.

“At the end of the day, I always see myself turning back to animal law. My father raised me to never settle and pursue exactly what I want, and that has always been to better the lives of those around me, particularly the furry four-legged ones, or feathered, or scaled.”

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