Student and animal activist helps write, advocate for legislation


by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Think there ought to be a law? Renee Edmondson has a solution for those who see a problem and think legislation is the way to fix it: write it yourself.

Edmondson is a student just finishing up her law degree at Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus. She is absolutely dedicated to animal rights and co-founded the Animal Law Society at Cooley.

When she was doing research for well-known Rockford animal law attorney Ginny Mikita of Mikita Kruse Law Center, Edmondson came across some legislation that had been proposed in the State of New York as well as in other states, none of which had enacted it.

It concerns, first, setting up a registry for individuals convicted of animal abuse, and, second, mandating that any agency offering animal adoptions refer to that registry and terminate the adoption process if the person is found on it.

Edmondson asked Mikita if she thought the legislation stood a chance in Michigan. When she received a favorable answer, she started working on making that happen.

First, she and her Animal Law Society co-founder Danielle Dawson rewrote the language of the bills to conform to Michigan’s code, learning as they went. Working with Mikita, they started to investigate possibilities for having a legislator champion the laws.

What happened next resulted in a bumpy ride. In Feb. 2012 the Animal Law Society hosted  Canton animal rights attorney Bee (Beatrice) Friedlander, who is a co-founder of the Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan and currently Acting Executive Director of the Animals and Society Institute. At one point Friedlander congratulated Mikita  on having her animal registry legislation introduced.

Excited, Edmondson pulled the bill information up on her iPhone. She observed that Rep. Harvey Santana, a Democrat from the Detroit area, had introduced it. But as she read the legislation, Edmondson faced disappointment: it was a much weaker version than “hers.” As  one example, the introduced legislation did not mandate termination of the adoption if the adopter’s name was on the registry list.

So Edmondson did what any resourceful, determined advocate does: she called Rep. Santana. “I left a voicemail telling him, I’ve been working with attorneys and law students in drafting something similar, but I feel like ours might be a little stronger.”

Staff called back, and Edmondson worked closely with them, as well as with the representative, to put some teeth in the bills. “I met with Rep. Santana,” she says, “and we went line by line through both the bills. I said, ‘Here are the issues we ran into with our bills, here’s how we solved them.’  Then we submitted it to the Legislative Services Bureau, but by the time it came back, it wasn’t reintroduced last session.”

Just this week Rep. Santana, along with Republican Rep. Paul Muxlow from Port Huron, reintroduced the revised version — “One of my favorite  quotes from Rep. Santana,” Edmondson says, “is that there are no Republican dogs and Democratic cats, it’s really a bipartisan issue.”

 Edmondson is quick to point out that the legislation still needs updating. HB 4534 amends 1969 PA 287, and is “an act to regulate pet shops, animal control shelters, and animal protection shelters; to establish uniform procedures and minimum requirements for adoption of dogs, cats, and ferrets; and to prescribe penalties and civil fines and to provide remedies.” Edmondson says that the terminology about “dogs, cats, and ferrets” is a leftover from last session’s bill and has to be corrected to indicate all companion animals.

HB 4535 sets up the registry, and is entitled, “The State of Michigan animal abuser registry law.” It is described as, “A bill to require individuals convicted of animal abuse offenses to register; to provide for the powers and duties of certain state and local governmental officers and entities; to impose fees; to prescribe penalties and provide remedies; and to require the promulgation of rules.”

Edmondson and the others advocating for the registry had to solve two other problems. First, the Michigan State Police opposed the bills and were not interested in supervising it. Edmondson talked with Raj Prasad and Amy Slameka of the Wayne County Animal Prosecution Unit, as she had been throughout the process, and Prasad said that unit would take on the responsibility for developing and maintaining the registry.

Edmondson also found a way to get around what may be the most challenging problem with new legislation: no money to support it. Along with Rep. Santana’s staff, she sent an email to the Animal Law Defense Fund, and without further ado ALDF gave them $10,000 to set up the registry.

Says Scott Heiser, Senior Attorney at ALDF, “It’s pretty common for people who don’t want this policy to kill it based on fiscal shortfalls, but we want to see them have the debate on the merits. We feel so strongly that we’re offering the first $10,000 of implementation costs to eliminate that argument.”

Heiser continues, “Registries are sound public policy because they do such a good job at protecting animals from being revictimized by known offenders. We’re optimistic that in the state of Michigan these bills will become law.”

He also acknowledges that he is quite impressed by the “quality of the effort” to put the bills up for a vote, according to his understanding of the role of Edmondson and other citizens.

Edmondson grew up in Uniontown, Ohio, and then majored in clarinet performance at Baldwin Wallace College near Cleveland. She came to the Grand Rapids area to get her masters degree in clarinet performance from Western Michigan University. A stint in retail store management convinced her that she did not want to continue in that career while having children. After her daughter
Sophie was born in 2009, she decided to go with advice she’d been hearing for years and become a lawyer.

Now, Edmondson also interns for Sen. Steve Bieda, and although she says she has not talked animal law with him, he too has introduced helpful legislation regarding animal rights.

At the same time as all the beneficial animal laws have come about, Sen. Tom Casperson has introduced SB 288, in apparent response to the successful drive to put a ban on hunting wolves on the ballot. The bill would move the decision about what species may be hunted from the legislature to the appointed Natural Resources Commission, bypassing the ballot initiative. “I feel like this is trying to silence Michigan citizens,” Edmondson comments. The Humane Society of the U.S. is working hard to have the bill defeated.

HB 4534 and 4535 are in the House Judiciary Committee, awaiting approval for a  full house vote.