Making a Case for Animal Law

2005 by Barbara Gislason

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

On vacation in China, attorney Barbara Gislason was sailing down the Yangtze River when she suddenly noticed something odd. She couldn't see or hear a single animal. No birds, no bees, no bugs, no fish. It was, as Gislason calls it, a "silent spring," recalling Rachel Carson's book in which an American town of the future is devoid of all living things, "silenced" by the effects of DDT. Gislason was very disturbed by her observation. "When I came back, I read A Gap in Nature, basically a series of obituaries for extinct animals. I thought, ‘I should really do something about this, and it started from there. It's funny how something clicks in your mind and you decide to take responsibility for making a big change in the world. It seemed clear that this was my purpose."

That was in 2002, when Gislason's Minneapolis practice focused on Family Law and Art and Entertainment Law. Her objective as an animal advocate was to get Animal Law recognized and respected within the legal profession; to get it acknowledged as a legitimate and important practice area.

"There is a feeling among many lawyers that Animal Law cases are a waste of time and not worth litigating because there isn't any money in them. For example, a human medical malpractice suit can bring substantial dollars in damages. In veterinary malpractice, a judgment is usually limited to the replacement value of the animal, since animals are considered property. That kind of compensation is not just, given the role and importance animals play in our lives. It does not reflect the common veterinarian emphasis that animals are family members. Five years from now I want to be able to litigate damages for animals that properly reflect the equitable maxim, ‘where there is a wrong, there is a remedy.' And I want Animal Law to move from being fringe, as it was in the past, to mainstream."

Gislason started her crusade by forming the Animal Law Committee of the Minnesota State Bar Association. Getting the governing body to vote in the Committee was not a sure thing, especially since Minnesota is an agricultural, hunting and fishing state. But once established, it gained support, and soon the Committee had enough attorneys backing it to become a Section of the State Bar. (Section status is granted when a practice area is considered "mature." Other sections include Tax, Real Estate, Family Law, etc.) In that same year, Gislason pushed for and achieved the formation of an Animal Law Committee within the Tort, Trial and Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) of the American Bar Association (ABA). Says Gislason, "Credibility and respect came with the ABA's recognition. And bringing Animal Law into a highly respected section of the ABA was huge - symbolic. Having an ABA Animal Law Committee also makes it easier to form new Animal Law committees and sections at the state level." David Wolfson, who teaches Animal Law at NYU and Columbia University and is a highly respected leader in the field, agrees with Gislason's assessment. "It's clear that the creation of the Animal Law Committee at the ABA was a very important event and marked the beginning of the ABA more seriously evaluating animal legal issues."

The ABA-TIPS Animal Law Committee played a unique role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Under its guise, Gislason set up the TIPS Animal Disaster Relief Network - made up of attorneys from law schools, bar associations, private practice and state agencies - to discuss legal issues pertaining to emergency animal rescue. She quickly expanded the group to include veterinary and animal welfare organizations, adding attorneys from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the Senior State Legislative Specialist from the Humane Society of the United States, and the State Policy Analyst from the American Veterinary Medical Association, as well as respected lay people from animal welfare groups. Before long, 35 organizations were calling in for meetings.

The group teleconferenced once a week (and still meets periodically). The first item on the agenda: recruiting lawyers to write FAQs for animal rescue volunteers. These are currently posted on the Animal Legal Defense Fund website at www.aldf.org. Through professional contacts, the Network was able to persuade the Red Cross to place a Petfinder.com link on its website, and the Network established a legislative committee that is working on federal pet evacuation bills and state evacuation plans.

Although Gislason is new to the animal welfare movement, her deeply held beliefs about animals reflect a philosophy that has been with her throughout her life.

"I am personally fascinated by the idea that people close to animals know what those animals are communicating to them. These are almost forbidden thoughts - that we can know what animals communicate - thoughts contrary to what our culture allows. I've also noticed that many people choose not to understand other animals. This is particularly baffling given all the scientific evidence that shows animals are much more sophisticated, cognitively and emotionally, than previously thought. It's harder to behave the way we do if we open our eyes, and see animals as they really are."

Barbara Gislason

Barbara Gislason attended Carleton College in Northfield and the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota. She currently lives with two Labrador look-alikes in Minneapolis and manages a private practice that encompasses Animal Law, Family Law and Entertainment Law. She is an adjunct law professor at Hamline University School of Law and is in the process of establishing a publishing company for animal writers.

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