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Archive for Sunday, February 8, 2004

More attorneys focus on animal law

February 8, 2004

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Starting when he was a puppy chewing on the straps of her shoulder bag, William the Conqueror, a black standard poodle, accompanied Judith Younger almost everywhere.

He grew into a refined canine, resting politely on the floor while she taught law school classes at the University of Minnesota, strolling with her and escorting her to dinner at a neighbor's house.

So when Younger needed heart surgery a few years ago, she worried about her animal companion and, as a wills and trusts professor, tried to provide for him in her will. She was shocked to learn that under Minnesota law she couldn't make her directives for William's care enforceable and would just have to trust that the people she had appointed would care for him.

"I was very, very worried about it," she said. "He was my only remaining dependent."

It's just one of many creature matters that have come up in the legal system.

Attorneys handling them are part of the emerging field of animal law.

Animal law encompasses everything from pet custody in divorce to testing on animals to wildlife conservation regulations.

"Animals can't speak for themselves, so people need to speak for them," said Barbara Gislason, a Minneapolis attorney.

Attorneys say the field has gained momentum in recent years for a variety of reasons. Advances in science are showing that animals have emotions and skills people didn't know about years ago, for instance.

"Most of this stuff has not been closely analyzed. Now people are questioning it," said David Wolfson, a New York City attorney who has handled some animal cases and has taught animal law at Yale University.

And the luxuries that come with a more affluent society are leaving people with more time to pay attention to their pets, changing their views on animals, Wolfson said.

"Many people consider a pet as a family member," Gislason said. "But there's nothing in the law that reflects the role of a pet in the family."

Without an enforceable provision in her will, Younger scrambled to make plans and backup plans for William, calling first on her grown daughters and then on friends.

She made it through the surgery and spent two more years with William until he died in December 2002. Her smile still beams when she talks about how he sat so well behaved by her office door.

"I really didn't realize how much I was wrapped up in him until he was gone," she said.

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