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Animal Rights On Docket At Law Schools

Animal Rights On Docket At Law Schools

By ADRIAN BRUNE | Special to The Courant

February 28, 2008

Gregory Oschwald's grandfather rarely came home from his daily job with stories or colorful anecdotes about the work he did, but the teenager from rural Minnesota soon discovered the hard life of a slaughterhouse employee.

Only a few blocks from his grandparents' home, every night Oschwald visited, he witnessed tractor-trailers rolling in to the processing plant where his grandfather worked, filled to the brim with turkeys waiting for slaughter. Crammed into cages six at a time for hours, often overnight, the turkeys had no access to food or water, and in the last hours of their lives couldn't spread their wings, perch, bathe, scratch and even walk on solid ground -- their most basic behaviors.

"Quite simply, these birds were sentenced to a life of misery," Oschwald said. "Seeing them treated with such disregard caused me at an early age to question our society's use of animals."

Joining a Minnesota-based animal protection organization after college, Oschwald eventually recognized the courts remained the most effective method to change conditions for the turkeys and other cruelly processed animals. He enrolled at Yale Law School to find a way to use the law to protect farm animals and eventually helped revolutionize Yale by re-introducing the concept of animal law to the campus.

"It's an exciting time to be involved in animal law," Oschwald said.

Until only about 20 years ago, the law did not consider animals a protected group, and lumped legislation regarding them within the traditional fields of torts, contract, criminal and constitutional law. But with the rise of the animal protection movement, more and more American Bar Association-accredited law schools, including Harvard, Columbia and New York universities, now offer courses in animal law, realizing the need to fill a demand in the field.

Yale has somewhat followed suit, hosting a symposium, providing space for study groups and offering a one-credit course in animal rights law. Animal rights enthusiasts at Yale Law School met this past weekend at Reblaw, the 14th annual rebellious lawyering conference that offered a variety of panels including "Animal Rights and Animal Wrongs."

"Although interest in animal law as a discrete field of law is relatively recent, animals have probably been a subject of the law for as long as there has been law," said Jennifer Sorenson, who, with Oschwald, revived the Yale chapter of the Animal Legal Defense Fund last year, then co-founded the weekly one-credit Animal Law Reading Group, which kick-started animal law activity at Yale. "But an enduring problem confronting those who wanted to protect animals was the question of judicial standing -- to bring a case a plaintiff must show she has suffered a cognizable injury. This makes it difficult for people to bring cases on behalf of animals because it is usually the animal -- not the person bringing the case -- who has suffered the injury. Many, many cases have been thrown out on these grounds."

Several recent lawsuits have pointed out the need for animal statutes in the law, according to Oschwald. In January, a Texas court ordered the return of two chimps to a refuge in San Antonio where they had been previously neglected -- something which might not have occurred if the chimps had greater rights. On the other hand, Oschwald and Sorenson say, the advancement of animal law has resulted in a number of significant decisions that probably would never have happened 20 years ago. Those include Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick's conviction for operating a dog fighting ring last summer and exposure of the egg industry's fraudulent use of the "Animal Care Certified" label.

"These cases represent incremental improvements in animal welfare in the United States and it is to be hoped that this trend will continue," Sorenson said.

Still, Yale has remained conservative in its approach to animal law. Instead of offering a full three- or four-credit animal law course, as is available at Columbia and Harvard, it chose to hire Paul Waldau, the director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University Veterinary School, to lead the one-credit course reading group last semester.

The 12-member Animal Law Reading Group at Yale keeps pushing for a larger course, more awareness and further animal rights activities.

"Whether or not it's a particularly immediate breakthrough, if it takes another decade, the point is, (animal law) is clearly coming," Waldau told CBS News recently, interviewed about the Texas chimps.

For their parts, both Oschwald, a long-term vegan, and Sorenson, a strict vegetarian since learning about animal cosmetics testing at age 11, plan to continue the group's activities, petitioning Yale for recognition of the animal law field as a crucial one, akin to courses as those that examine laws affecting children and the disabled. Both plan to use their careers to defend animals and wildlife.

"After seeing my grandfather's plant and modern egg farms during college, it became clear to me that I would devote my life to ending such outrageous cruelty," Oschwald said. "Although animals are by no means humans, they are like us in the most morally relevant respect: their ability to suffer."

Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant

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