PUBLISHED:April 01, 2008

Leading animal law practitioner speaks at Duke Law, March 31

April 1, 2008 — Duke Law students had a chance to hear from one of the country’s leading practitioners of animal law on March 31. Bruce Wagman, a partner with Schiff Hardin in San Francisco, chief outside counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), and co-author of the casebook Animal Law, offered students an overview of the field and key areas of focus for animal protection actions.

Describing a field that reaches into areas of litigation, environmental and family law, and social justice, among others, Wagman introduced students to animal justice organizations and law firms that work in protection via “impact litigation” — cases that actually aim to change industry and consumer practices, as in those challenging the practice of closely confining cattle and swine on factory farms — legislative efforts, and grassroots campaigns. Weaving social justice, animal cruelty, and legal concepts into his talk, he demonstrated the motivations for and legal strategies involved in different kinds of actions.

“There are no clear laws protecting animals in this country,” Wagman said. “You can’t sue for cruelty. The only entity that can sue for cruelty is the government, so if the government is not willing to — outside of North Carolina — there is no remedy.” Lawyers, he said, are looking for laws that don’t necessarily pertain to animals and utilizing them to help animals.

The notion of cruelty as it pertains to animals is a “moving target,” said Wagman. “What wasn’t cruel 50 years ago is cruel today.” A 50-year-old opinion found that drowning kittens wasn’t cruel, he noted, whereas today it would clearly be so. Wagman said he and other animal advocates applauded a recent decision of the California Supreme Court upholding a ban on non-therapeutic de-clawing of cats by the municipality of West Hollywood, ruling that it did not interfere with the practice of veterinary medicine. “What’s important to me is that the court agreed that local communities can determine what’s cruel and what isn’t,” he said.

Wagman reviewed in detail two recent North Carolina hoarding cases in which he represented the ALDF. North Carolina is unique in having a law — General Statutes Chapter 19A — allowing members of the public to sue hoarders directly for temporary and permanent injunctions, granting them custody and ownership, respectively, of the hoarders’ animals. Reviewing the multiple circumstances that point to a hoarding situation, Wagman emphasized that three are always present: Hoarders possess more animals than they can properly care for (usually more than 10 and on average 40-80); they fail or refuse to see the animals are suffering or in pain; and recidivism is “almost guaranteed” if all the animals are not taken away from the hoarder. Expert testimony pertaining to the pain and suffering experienced by animals in hoarding situations is crucial to successful outcomes, he said.

Asked how an attorney can build a paying or pro bono practice in animal law, Wagman stressed the importance of first developing strong litigation skills.

Wagman’s address, “The Many Species of Animal Law,” is available as a webcast.