Animal Law Practice Group draws large crowd for first meeting

Issue May 2008 By Bill Archambeault

The Animal Law Practice Group attracted more than 50 people to its first meeting as experts explained how the field is growing and how attorneys can incorporate it into their practice.

The group, which falls under the Civil Litigation Section, met at the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Boston offices on April 10.

Paul Waldau, assistant professor and director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, addressed the packed room.

“I don’t think you’ll be surprised to see so many lawyers are interested in animal law,” said Waldau, who teaches an animal law course at Harvard University.

Waldau noted the growing interest in the field, pointing out that about half of the law schools in the country now teach courses on the subject, and at least 15 bar associations offer animal law groups to their members, including the American Bar Association and now, the MBA.

“You can see that animal law has arrived in some really significant ways,” he said. He noted that the value and roles that animals play in society vary widely, from family pets to laboratory animals used in research experiments. Because of that, the law struggles to classify animals, their rights and their value to humans.

“What does the future hold? Our legal system is quite adept at protecting animals when we decide we want to protect them,” Waldau said. “The law has an incredibly important place in future efforts to protect animals.”

Donna Turley, a founding member of Glickman Turley LLP in Boston, offered some specific advice about handling cases such as those involving “vicious dogs.” She noted that most town officials aren’t familiar with animal statutes, and often, town officials will rule against the dogs and their owners in hearings. That’s usually when lawyers get involved.

She cautioned the audience against taking certain cases, especially those involving attacks on children.

Turley also spoke about advising clients who want to include “animal inheritance” stipulations in their wills, or what advice to give their clients when owners want to make sure their beloved pet ends up in a quality “retirement home” after the owner dies.

Turley introduced Jonathon Stone Rankin, of The Animal Law Offices of Jonathan Stone Rankin in Framingham, who is believed to have the only practice in Massachusetts exclusively focused on animal law.

Rankin said there’s no concern about thinking outside of the box in regards to animal law because “there is no box.”

Animal law, he said, pulls in a lot of other areas of law, including First Amendment rights, criminal law and wills and trusts. Most states now have protections against cruelty to animals, he said, while only a few had such laws a decade ago.

Most of his cases are torts and most involve veterinary malpractice cases, which he described as similar to medical malpractice cases. In the 1990s, the average settlement fell within the $5,000 to $10,000 range, but he said he expects that to increase as society, and the law, places a higher value on pets’ worth to humans.

In states where animals are viewed simply as property owned by people, an animal’s value on the open market doesn’t begin to take into account the pet’s emotional value to the owner.

His cat, he said, wouldn’t be worth much if he tried to buy a similar cat, he said, but his pet is invaluable to him.

“There are a lot of hurdles and some of these are arbitrary in nature,” Rankin said. “Pets are family members,” but the courts are reluctant to raise the difficult question of determining a value on pets.