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Pet Project

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Barbara J. Gislason remembers exactly when she decided to make animals a focus of her law practice.

It was 2001, and Gislason was visiting China following yet another flood in the Yangtze River basin, home to a third of China’s 1.3 billion people. Traveling in the flood zone, she was struck by the silence in the absence of both people and wildlife. That silence reminded her of an experience years earlier when she visited her grandmother’s farm shortly after the chemical DDT was sprayed in the area.

“They call it the silent spring,” says Gislason of Min­neapolis. “It’s very eerie to not see or hear any birds or animals or any sort of wildlife over a whole landscape like that. That’s when the lightbulb went off for me–animals need protection, too.”

Gislason was instrumental in the creation earlier this year of the Animal Law Committee in the ABA Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section. She now chairs the committee. Gislason emphasizes that the committee’s purpose is not to advocate policies that would extend equal protection under the law to animals.

Rather, she says, the committee will focus on how legal principles are applied to animals in a growing number of ways. Among the issues the committee expects to address are laws relating to household pets, insurance and compensation relating to animals, commercial animal breeding, veterinary law, the import and export of animals, the encroachment of human development on natural habitats, how animals are cared for in zoos and other controlled environments–and yes, dog bite cases.

“Americans spend $19 billion a year on vet bills,” Gislason says. “More people in this country live with an­imals than live with children. People are speaking with their pocketbooks that they want the law to address this.”

Signs Of Growth

The growth of animal law is a recent phe­nomenon. The Animal Legal Defense Fund lists animal law committees sponsored by 11 state bars: Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Penn­sylvania, Texas and Washington. Committees are being formed in Massachusetts and Oregon, according to the ALDF’s Web site, which also counts 62 law schools that offer classes in animal law. Most of these classes and committees were introduced in the past dec­ade, according to the ALDF.

The growing interest in pet trusts is just one illustration of how the law is playing a more complex role in the relationship between humans and animals, according to Gislason.

About half the states now allow funds to be left in trust for the caretaking of pets after the death of their owners. In addition, California and other states are moving toward allowing noneconomic damages when pets die or are severely injured by someone’s negligence or deliberate behavior. Virtually all states have some form of anti cruelty law that imposes criminal penalties for the deliberate harming of animals considered pets.

In September, the Animal Law Committee created the ABA Animal Disaster Relief Net­work to help deal with the thousands of dogs, cats and other pets that were stranded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In addition, the network is looking at the possibility of drafting model legislation to cover animal disaster relief and developing standard operating procedures for animal rescues.

Among the groups working with the TIPS Animal Law Committee in the network are the ALDF and the Amer­ican Veterinary Medical Association. Information on the network is available at

Gislason says the existence of an animal law committee at the ABA gives the topic more credibility. “It changes the dynamic,” she says. “This practice area is no longer considered to be something on the fringe. We’ve joined the mainstream.”

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