Posted Aug 11, 2007 08:01 pm CDT
NFL football star Michael Vick gained high praise today from animal rights activists gathered at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco—though it was much like a linebacker ready to feast on a quarterback who is looking the other way.
“Within seconds of Michael Vick’s indictment for dogfighting, the whole country became very much aware of the abuse of animals,” said Bruce Wagman, whose big-firm law practice has evolved to the point that he handles animal abuse matters exclusively. “He’s our poster boy. We could work at it 20 years or more—and many have—and not achieve such significant change in the public’s understanding. He did it for us.”
As Wagman spoke at a panel presentation titled “How to Represent Petey: Animals in Entertainment,” the name “Vick” was projected on a screen behind him, with active graphic changing its color and background, flipping it upside down and moving it around. Someone had advised Wagman that all he had to do was put up the name “Vick” to make a point.
Wagman, a partner at 400-lawyer Schiff Hardin’s San Francisco office, is one of the most prominent figures in the fast-growing field of animal law. He is the primary outside litigation counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and teaches animal law as an adjunct professor at four law schools in the Bay Area. Abbreviated, they are: Stanford, Hastings, Berkeley and the University of San Francisco.
Somewhat by chance, having just completed a clerkship with a federal judge, Wagman went to a panel discussion on animal rights at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco in 1992.
“I’ve only had one revelation in my life,” Wagman told the group. “And it was that day in a room like this at the ABA conference.”
“I walked out of there changed completely,” he said, just as he was starting civil law practice. Over the past three or four years, he has moved exclusively to animal law practice.
“We lose a lot of cases,” he said. “We’re trying to change things that are often legal.”
One major problem: Animals are considered property.
But Wagman is chipping away at that through litigation. Perhaps his biggest case was filed in 2005, after sending in an undercover investigator to work for a year and a half as an animal trainer with a man who trained chimpanzees for movies, television and appearances at parties.
The “training” amounted mostly to beatings with hard and sharp objects—pounding the animals into submission.
With a huge amount of evidence—eyewitnesses, video, documents—Wagman said he was able to get a judge who had said “chimpanzees, rocks—same thing” to rule that there was a violation of the Endangered Species Act. That pushed the defendant to settle and agree never to be around animals again in any personal or professional capacity.
Most significantly, the defendant agreed that animals have feelings and that three chimpanzees rescued from his business could go under the guardianship of Roger Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute.
“That’s a legal tool for the future,” Wagman said. “We can say we have a court-approved legal settlement in which we got a guardian for a chimpanzee. That’s revolutionary—a guardian for property.” Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Yost, CV-05-1066, U.S. Dist. Ct, Central Dist. Calif. 2006.
Actress and animal rights activist Tippi Hedren had planned to speak at the panel discussion, which was sponsored by the Torts Trial and Insurance Practice Section’s Animal Law Committee. She was unable to make it—though she did arrive via video and apologized. She said she believes lawyers could greatly benefit the movement to stop abusive treatment of animals—particularly the huge market in breeding exotic and dangerous animals for sale as pets—by pushing state and federal laws to curtail such activity.
After the program, Wagman said that he believes Michael Vick could have done one other thing to help the movement.
“It’s unfortunate that what he did with dog fighting is illegal,” Wagman said. “Had he been found doing something this outrageous that was legal, it would help even more in getting new laws.”
By the way, “Petey,” whose name is in the program title was the pit bull in the Our Gang short comedy films of the 1920s and 1930s. The show also was known as The Little Rascals. Petey, whose real name was Pal, allegedly was poisoned by someone with a grudge against his trainer.
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