Professor is crossing borders in animal law

VIDEO: Professor Fitzgerald discusses animal law. (3 min:55 sec)

It is easy to spot Professor Peter Fitzgerald on the Stetson Law campus in Gulfport. He is usually with Duncan and Dora, two special golden retrievers. Duncan is a certified therapy dog and Dora is in training for her therapy dog qualification. Fitzgerald rescued Duncan a day before he was scheduled to be euthanized. He recently brought Dora back with him from Scotland after a sabbatical to the U.K. Last year, Professor Fitzgerald visited Cambridge in England and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland to research his forthcoming new book, International Issues in Animal Law. » Read more about Professor Fitzgerald’s fellowships

Fitzgerald and his wife Susan have been active with golden retriever rescue for close to 15 years, adopting and fostering dogs. An international commercial law expert, Fitzgerald talked during a recent interview about how he discovered a way to blend his personal interest in animal rescue with his academic interests. He has been researching what happens when animals cross international borders in the agricultural trade, and how international trade and environmental agreements affect domestic animal welfare laws.

Last year, during the International Wildlife Law Conference at Stetson, Fitzgerald described the debate over the European Union’s ban of seal imports. There is now a case pending before the World Trade Organization regarding the EU’s seal products regulations. When the European Commission decided that seals were not to be hunted and banned their import, they may have inadvertently created a trade barrier, Fitzgerald explained.

“When animal law and trade issues come up, they don’t match up very well,” Fitzgerald said.

Crossing borders can complicate trade issues involving animals.

Duncan and Professor Fitzgerald recently visited the UK.

Duncan and Professor Fitzgerald recently visited the UK.

“The way animals are treated around the world is very different from region to region and country to country,” Fitzgerald said. “The cultural attitudes that we have are very different, and that both informs and influences the debate over: do animals have rights, are they property, or are they something in between?”

In Europe, Fitzgerald explained, animal welfare science is formally incorporated into the passage of new laws and policies dealing with animals to a much greater extent than occurs in the United States.

“Science does not answer all the questions, but it provides a lens to help cut through a lot of the theological debates where you may never be able to get a clear consensus on the status of animals,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald noted that the new constitution for the European Union specifically states that animals are “sentient beings” in the same section of the Treaty that also recognizes nondiscrimination and equality obligations.

“It does have a lot of caveats and exceptions, but for a lawyer to have language like that in a fundamental document is a wonderful peg to hang one’s hat on,” Fitzgerald said.

Here in the U.S., recent work has been done to introduce dogs into the courtroom to assist witnesses with difficult testimony, especially in cases involving children. Animals are being used in pretrial interviews to calm witnesses describing abuse, and also during trials. This new role for animals helps to bring awareness to their special value to humans. Still, not all animals are viewed equally, Fitzgerald explained.

“The big dichotomy is the distinction between companion animals, those that are with us every day, and those involved in factory farming in the food chain,” Professor Fitzgerald said, seated next to companions Dora and Duncan on a well-worn couch in his faculty office.

“The things we don’t see are how food production animals are treated, the way factory farms are run, what happens to chickens, sheep and cattle,” said Professor Fitzgerald. “There has been little visibility into what’s happening in those practices since we moved away from living on farms in the 21st century.”

Duncan joins a panel Sept. 20 at Stetson discussing careers in animal law.

Duncan joined a panel Sept. 20 at Stetson discussing careers in animal law.

Human relationships with animals have had a long and varied history. Animals have been worshipped as deities, served as pet companions, and have been used in food production. One of the first animal cruelty laws was passed by the Puritans in the 1640s. During the early 19th century in England, William Wilberforce, who was instrumental in the abolition of slavery in the U.K., took up the issue of animal rights and founded the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In the 1970s in the U.S. and elsewhere, more expansive views of our relationships with animals questioned whether animals have their own rights. The 21st century relationship still continues to evolve, with animals being used to provide therapy, comfort and assistance to humans while simultaneously serving in factory food production.

This dichotomy may be one reason why so many people appear to be fascinated with animal law.

“Animal law is growing very rapidly,” said Professor Fitzgerald. “There’s a lot of interest in it and it’s a great area of public discussion as well.”

On Sept. 20, a meeting room at Stetson Law in Gulfport filled to capacity with law students interested in learning more about careers in the emerging area.

“Animal law is a booming area in the U.S. There are now some 130-140 courses being taught around the country,” Professor Fitzgerald said at the panel, organized by the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at Stetson.

Hosted by student ALDF president Lauren Sennenger, the panel included career development, faculty experts, a volunteer with SPOT Tampa Bay rescue, and two special golden retrievers.

“Animal law is a fascinating and exciting field, and it’s growing,” Fitzgerald said.

From estates and trusts involving pets to constitutional law and free speech issues involving people protesting animal abuse, faculty panelist Jennifer Dietz said there is almost no area of law that potentially couldn’t have an animal-related aspect to it.

“Get involved,” said Assistant Director for Career Development Jennifer McGinnis. “That’s the first step.”

Dora and Duncan, seated under the panelists’ table, were patient and silent.

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