Animal Law: an introduction

Animal Law includes a variety of areas, from dog bites to cruelty cases to livestock regulation.

Over the past 20 years, “Animal Law” has become more popular and has earned legitimacy as an area of legal practice. So what exactly is it?

Essentially, Animal Law is any kind of legal work that involves non-human animals. Often Animal Law is thought of in terms of helping animals, but that’s not always the case. If a cat bites a household guest and a lawsuit follows, lawyers representing both sides could be considered engaged in Animal Law, though neither side is necessarily promoting the cause of animals. Animal lawyers may practice only Animal Law, that is take on matters involving animals in one way or another, or may include Animal Law in a broader practice.

Lawyers in Animal Law work issues involving a broad range of legal fields: criminal law, veterinary malpractice, administrative law (issues that involved state agencies that oversee specific animal issues), wildlife conservation or hunting and fishing laws, livestock and agriculture issues, constitutional law, and even estate planning and divorce law. A few examples of the types of issues such lawyers might work on include landlord/tenant disputes, custody of the family cat or dog in a divorce, endangered species designations, taking care of the cats in a person’s will, and dangerous dog proceedings, though there are many more.

Nonprofit and government lawyers

In addition to lawyers in private practice, many lawyers who work for nonprofit organizations or governmental agencies practice animal law. Nonprofit organizations that work on animal law issues include animal protection organizations that get involved in cases like shutting down puppy mills or animal cruelty, wildlife and endangered species organizations and animal shelters and humane societies. Governmental agencies include state wildlife agencies, livestock boards, law enforcement agencies that prosecute animal cruelty cases and attorney generals offices.

Law schools and bar associations

At least 120 law schools in the U.S. offer courses in Animal Law, though twenty years ago it was only a handful. Lewis & Clark Law School is embarking on the world’s first L.L.M. (an advanced law degree) program for Animal Law. The bar associations in many states (the licensing and/or professional organization that many lawyers belong) are also creating committees, sections or divisions that address Animal Law, though some may need to take a neutral stance due to the organization’s mission and structure rather than a pro-animal stance. Even the national American Bar Association has an Animal Law Committee.

Animal law and policy

Lawyers interested in animal issues also work on improving policy. That can include work on local, state or federal laws as a lobbyist, expert or as Congressional or state legislative staff. It can also mean working for a state or federal agency that deals with animal issues, such as a state wildlife agency, and may involve drafting and enforcing regulations.

Animal law has come a long way in 20 years and given the interest people have in helping animals, is likely to get stronger yet!