Fido has rights, too: Examining the developing world of animal law

By John Foren
Legal News

If Ace Ventura was the Pet Detective, Amy Breyer is the Pet Attorney.
She’s among a select group of lawyers nationwide whose practice is solely devoted to cases involving animals and the law.
That could encompass a malpractice case against a veterinarian, defending a pooch threatened with euthanization for biting someone, or a dispute between a breeder and a buyer.
“It really is a developing area,” says Breyer from her office in Chicago.
Breyer will be featured at the “Family Pets and the Law” symposium Monday, March 22 at the Michigan State University College of Law. The event is free and no reservations are required. It’s sponsored by the law school’s student-run Journal of Animal Law. Get more information at www.law.msu.edu.
The symposium will take a serious look at a topic some might scoff at: the changing legal nature of pets in our society and how the law affects them.
That’s right. You may not think your Golden Retriever who lounges away the day or the Siamese who only stops by for a meal have much standing in court, but you’d be surprised, says David Favre, professor of animal law at MSU’s law school and a trailblazer in the field.
Favre helps run the school’s animal law and history Web site, www.animallaw.info, which has everything you’d want to know about case law and legal news about pets. Favre says it’s the largest such site in the world.
He’s been involved in the issue for some 30 years when he was a professor at the MSU law school’s forerunner, the Detroit College of Law.
Favre got a lot of funny looks in the early years about why he was devoting so much time to the legal rights of pooches and felines.
“I was really nuts 20 years ago. I’m not so nuts now,” he says.
He routinely gets calls from all over the world to discuss animal law and treatment; a Swiss reporter had just called him, he says, over a new proposal there on handling animal-related cases. And his phone rang constantly after a killer whale was involved in the recent death of a trainer at Sea World in Florida
“There’s been a global reawakening about how we treat animals,” Favre says.
Much of that relates to our love affair with our pets, including the ever-increasing amounts we spend on them.
As animals have taken on more importance in our lives, they’ve taken on more importance in the law.
Favre says there’s been a significant shift in the past 10 years in the way the legal system treats animals.
For instance, Michigan now allows pets to be provided for in wills and trusts and many states have followed suit, he says.
Some states have enacted what Favre calls a “virtual auto lemon law” for animals, covering who’s responsible when someone buys a pet with a health problem that wasn’t disclosed.
Custody cases — who gets the dog when a couple breaks up, for instance — are rare but probably happen about once a month around the country, he says.
And that can lead to the same issues that surround any support dispute: how much does each side pay for pet food and care.
Favre says one of the hottest topics in animal law is whether pets are property, like a piece of furniture, which is how most state laws define them, or whether they should take on greater legal importance.
“Some people do think we’re totally trivial and out of our minds,” he says. “But the general public seems to understand they’re living beings and not a table.”
Still, Favre isn’t as extreme as some animal rights activists, who believe treating pets as property is akin to slavery and they should be regarded closer to offspring.
He thinks the law should set up a separate category for animals as “living property” in which their rights are taken into consideration.
Favre — who has dogs, cats, sheep, chickens and turkeys on his own Lansing-area farm — says enrollment in his animal law course has doubled over the years.
Breyer is not surprised.
Much like environmental law has gained credibility in the past few decades, young people see nothing odd about advocating for animals, she says.
“The more it becomes part of the mainstream landscape young people don’t view it as strange.”
Breyer, 45, was a newswriter/producer for CNN and television stations in Washington D.C. and New York before she decided to go to law school, specifically to focus on animals and protecting their legal rights.
Since opening her law practice in 2002, business has been consistent, if not huge, Breyer says.
Her cases tend to be representing the owners of animals done wrong.
There was the time a police officer tripped over a dog during a foot chase, accidentally shot it in the head at point-blank range and kept running, she says.
And the instance when she aided an owner whose pit bull faced punishment for biting someone.
The dog had the unfortunate name of  “Jaws,” which “made the case hard to defend,” Breyer says ruefully.
Many of her cases surround alleged malpractice by veterinarians, such as the dog who had six operations on a leg without having the problem fixed or another canine who went in for minor surgery, developed massive infections and died.
One trend Breyer says she’s seeing, at least in the Chicago area, is communities getting tougher and taking more drastic action in dog bite cases.
That’s an outgrowth of public outcry, along with fears over dog fighting, she says.
And that means Breyer has to be on the defense for her clients, not just going to bat for some cute pooch.
Usually, though, people flock to talk to her about her unusual practice.
“In between court, I’ll have opposing counsel and judges talk to me about their animals,” she says. “They’ll whip out their photos.
“I tend to get a lot of personal reaction from people, which probably wouldn’t be the case if I was in divorce law.  … If I worked in divorce law I don’t think opposing counsel and judges would say, ‘Hey, I’m divorced.’”
 

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