Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : October 2006

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MSBA Creates Animal Law Section

Animal law is now a popular area of law practice, and the number of practitioners in this field in Maryland and across the country continues to climb. Responding to this trend, MSBA created an Animal Law Committee catering to the special needs of these practitioners in September 2005. This Committee attracted so many interested attorneys – 122 in just eight months – that it became a MSBA Section last June. MSBA members approved the MSBA Animal Law Section at the 2006 MSBA Annual Meeting and the Association's newest Section is now 160 members strong.

Today, more than 100 million households have at least one indoor domestic pet, and many have two or more, including 65+ million dogs and 77+ millions cats. Plus, there is a large number of domestic animals that are classified as companions or service animals. Maryland has a large horse population, too, as the state is renowned for the breeding and racing of horses. In addition, animals reside on farms and pastures, in zoos and exotic parks and natural habitats across this country, some protected as endangered species.

Americans now spend billions of dollars on animals every year. The pet industry alone has become a huge multi-million dollar enterprise in this country. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association estimates that Americans will spend roughly $38.4 billion on their pets this year, with $2.7 billion alone going to boarding and grooming. Animals are an integral part of our culture and, as the public's interest in animals grows, so does their status in our legal system.

"Animals are slowly gaining status as something more than property in Maryland and across the country," asserts Alan S. Nemeth, Chair of MSBA's Animal Law Section. "Pets affect families and communities and, thus, the law."

Today's consumer is increasingly encountering legal issues relating to human/animal interactions. These include everything from the legality of estate planning for companion animals, the changing liability standards and insurance coverage in dog-bite cases, leash laws and compensation beyond fair market value when an animal is killed, to veterinary malpractice, custody battles, public and private conflicts about where an animal can be and competing interests of wild animals and urban, farming and recreational land use.

"Animal law is not limited to animal rights issues," stresses Nemeth. "There are a number of legal issues that touch on pets, in such areas as family law, contracts, trusts, torts, property, criminal and landlord/tenant law. Trusts and wills is one of the biggest."

There are many states, including Maryland, where animals have no legal standing in court; animals have no legal rights. As Nemeth explains, "when a person creates a Pet Trust for the care of an animal in Maryland, in the event of that person's death, that animal is not considered a person, so it has no standing in court. Therefore, that trust can be contested by a family member."

Pet trusts and pet visitation rights in divorce cases are two big issues in animal law, although Nemeth reports case law is emerging in a number of key areas relating to animals. Veterinary medical malpractice, wildlife law and regulations (like the recent black bear hunt), animal cruelty and protection laws and exotic animal laws are all emerging issues.

As evidenced above, Maryland attorneys are now tackling an array of animal-related issues, and MSBA's new Animal Law Section will broaden the support services provided by the former Committee to better assist MSBA members. In the last 11 months, this group developed CLE programs and other practitioner resources and pursued animal law legislation to advance the practice of animal law in Maryland.

Last fall, the Committee was launched as a forum so animal law practitioners could network and draw support from their colleagues, share their expertise in this unique area of practice and exchange creative and interesting ways to use legal arguments in the face of some of these increasingly complex scenarios. "We focused on everything from the treatment of animals and the protections afforded animals to the rights and responsibilities of people who have an interest in animals," notes Nemeth.

The Committee was very active on the legislative front during the 2006 session of the Maryland General Assembly. It supported legislation prohibiting a person from inflicting unnecessary suffering or pain on an animal, which passed into law, and backed the creation of a pet trust care for animals, which passed the Senate but failed in the House, due to a time crunch. The Section will pursue it again next year.

However, its "main goal was to build members so it could become a Section," recalls Nemeth, who is thrilled with MSBA Section status. "We are more solidified as an MSBA substantive law Section," he declares. "It gives us credibility, stability and solidification."

"The MSBA is delighted with the response and participation by our members in the creation and development of the Animal Law Section," states Paul V. Carlin, MSBA's Executive Director. "As we've done with other special practice areas, the MSBA wants to assist in their evolution and be responsive to the interests of our members."

The new Section is already hard at work on its bylaws and is creating a newsletter. In the coming year, it plans to focus on pet domestic violence issues and prosecution of the animal cruelty felony statute. It is also exploring the possibility of establishing animal law clinics in Maryland's two law schools.

MSBA members interested in joining the new Animal Law Section may sign-up for membership at www.msba.org/sec_comm/sections/animallaw.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: October 2006