New Animal Law Course Gives Students Experiential Opportunities
“What is animal law?” When Megan E. Boyd, instructor of law, tells people she teaches animal law, that’s almost always the first question she gets.
“Animal law touches almost every area of substantive law,” Boyd said. “Animal law is any area in which non-human animals play an important role.”
The background of most animal law courses is standing—who has a legal right to bring suit to protect the rights of animals or to protect animals from being harmed. But animal law “also touches domestic law, criminal law, civil law, and many other areas,” Boyd said.
Laws governing animal testing and research are an important part of animal law, Boyd said, and “some of the most interesting, cutting-edge animal law issues deal with evolving advancements in medicine and, specifically, the creation of human-animal chimeras to be used for organ and tissue transplants.”
Georgia State University first offered Animal Law in summer 2016, and Boyd, whose approach to teaching is practice-based, wanted to incorporate practical elements into the course: “I want students to understand the breadth and depth of animal law but also to gain some practical experience. While I was designing the course, I read an article about a talking macaw that authorities believed had witnessed a murder. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to create a hypothetical based on that interesting story.”
So Boyd had students draft a complaint on behalf of a fictional client whose macaw, Kiwi, had been killed by a neighbor after the macaw heard the neighbor confessing to a crime and then began repeating the neighbor’s confession.
“Drafting a civil complaint is pretty standard work for many lawyers,” Boyd said, “but what makes this complaint interesting is that in most states, a person whose animal is killed can only assert a claim for property damage and can only recover the fair market value of the animal. At least with companion animals, such as cats and dogs, that’s not reflective of the value society places on animals because it doesn’t account for the emotional relationships people have with their pets.”
In recent years, some courts have shown a willingness to allow claims outside those for property damage, so Boyd “wanted students to get practice drafting a complaint while thinking about whether they could bring other claims, such as those for loss of companionship, on behalf of Kiwi’s owners.”
Boyd also incorporated a statutory drafting element into the course. Several states, including Tennessee, have enacted statutes that allow animal owners to recover certain damages from a person who negligently or intentionally kills a companion animal. Boyd had students work in groups to draft a proposed statute that would allow for such recovery.
“I like this exercise,” Boyd said, “because it requires the type of teamwork, collaboration, and compromise that legislators must employ in drafting statutes and makes students think more carefully about the meaning of words.”
In drafting the statutes, students had to consider questions such as: Should the proposed statute apply only to “pets” and, if so, how do we define that term? Should the term “pets” be limited to traditional house pets, such as cats and dogs, or should we allow recovery for the deaths of other animals that people keep as pets, such as pigs, snakes, and hedgehogs? Should we exempt providers of professional services, such as veterinarians? Should the statute provide for recovery of a set amount (such as $5,000) or allow for recovery as decided by a fact finder?
“Even I was surprised at the result of this exercise,” says Boyd. “Some groups drafted broad statutes that allowed for recovery of many different types of damages for the loss of many different types of animals, while others crafted much more conservative statutes that limited recovery. I was very pleased with the thought students put into this exercise.”
Students appreciated the statutory drafting exercise as well. Paul Panusky (J.D. ’19) said the exercise required him to “think of real-world effects and how people could misunderstand the statute or take advantage of unclear terms.”
Panusky said the course’s experiential components helped him “better understand real-world legal work.”
Boyd will offer Animal Law again in the spring.