U.Va. Offers First-Ever Animal Law Class This Fall

October 29, 2009 — Are animals personal property or do they have rights? How should we balance human needs with animal needs? How do you provide for an animal in your will? A new course this fall – the first of its kind at the University of Virginia – probes these and other issues.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Rebecca Arrington:

"Animal Law 9040" examines the "legal issues pertaining to animals, the laws that govern their treatment, as well as a number of topics that fall within the general headings 'animal law' and 'animal rights,'" said Margaret "Mimi" Riley, who teaches the three-credit seminar on Thursday afternoons as a part of U.Va.'s Bob Barker Animal Rights Program, which she heads.

The course is one component of the multi-faceted program, Riley said. The 15 students enrolled show "enthusiastic participation."

"The field of animal law is so vast, it's difficult even to skim the surface of all the related issues in one semester," said Sarah Cummings, a second-year law student and vice president for speakers in the Virginia Animal Law Society. "For example, animal law encompasses the recently popularized dogfighting laws – or lack thereof – puppy mills, anti-animal cruelty statutes, sustainable agriculture, humane slaughter, biomedical use of animals, trusts and estates, the use of animals in entertainment such as zoos and circuses, and so much more."

Cummings said animal law is a multi-dimensional and promising field of study that deserves more judicial attention.

"The law treats animals as personal property, which has significant implications for a person's ability to recover damages for liability if their pet is harmed or killed," Cummings said. "If a man lost his beloved best friend, whom he'd raised from a puppy, most courts would only award the 'market value' of the animal, much the same way a court might award the replacement value of your tractor if it was damaged.

"Clearly this doesn't comport with society's ever-growing fondness of companion animals, but it's just a question of when a court or legislature is going to be willing to recognize that."

Several guest speakers will make appearances during the class, including Patricia Foley, director of the University's Office of Animal Welfare, and Jeff Kerr, the general counsel of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

Also appearing will be Scott Ballenger, a partner at Latham and Watkins who wrote a brief on behalf of the Humane Society of the United States for U.S. v. Stevens, a potential landmark animal law case that was argued before the Supreme Court on Oct. 7. The case will examine whether or not a federal ban on videos depicting animal cruelty violates the First Amendment.

U.Va.'s Barker Animal Rights Program also features a wide range of activities outside of the classroom, including support for externships for recently graduated students and sponsorship of an upcoming writing competition open to all University graduate students. The competition will involve a 25- to 40-page paper concerning animal law, ethics or rights.

Furthermore, the program retains contacts with "local and national interest groups, such as the Albemarle SPCA," Riley said. Collaborative projects involving various interest groups and student volunteers are under way.

"The class is a great way for students to explore legal principles in the context of a subject area that interests them," Riley said. "It's also an area of law that is evolving rapidly."

Bob Barker, an enthusiastic animal rights advocate best known as the host of the long-running game show, "The Price is Right," gave $1 million to the University to establish the program. U.Va. announced the gift in early January.

Riley said she wanted to head up the program because "this is an area where strong emotions and some unfortunate history has polarized debate. I believe that I can provide a setting where people of all viewpoints can express their ideas freely and real dialogue results. That in turn leads to better education in this area, better scholarship and better policy solutions."

— By Ashley Mathieu