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Inside practice: Animal law

Curious about what it takes to practice in the growing field of animal law? Read on.

Victoria Shroff, animal law lawyer, Vancouver

First, to be an animal law lawyer, you need more than just a love of animals. You must love the law, too. Embracing social justice, intersectional ideas also helps.

Animal law is serious black letter law, albeit with somewhat furry characteristics. You can define it as any case where an animal and the law intersect. It encompasses tort, contract, family, criminal, administrative, environmental, agricultural, wildlife, property law and more. Though animals are still considered property under most laws, that concept has evolved over the years. I, for one, continue to push the dial forward to make the case for animals as more than property and ultimately as rights holders.

To many, animal law is a shiny new area of law, but it has a history. Animals intersecting with the law reaches back to the early days of human- and animal-kind. I am fortunate to have been practicing animal law and teaching it as an adjunct professor in Vancouver for over 20 years. I've seen firsthand that animal law is a viable and expanding area, though peers still view my practice as a bit of a curiosity. Law schools, elementary schools, community groups frequently invite me to speak or talk about what I do on career day. I also lecture in Asia, Europe and the United States. My students, mentees and colleagues affectionately call a Canadian animal law "ambassador."

In many ways, animal law is where environmental law was just a few decades ago, when it was an assortment of cases and statutes involving rivers, trees, lakes and mountains. In the same way today, animal law involves statutes and cases involving companion animals, farmed animals and wildlife.

When animal law was nearly unheard of in Canada in the mid-1990s, a trailblazing Vancouver lawyer, Kristin Tillquist, pioneered one of the first private practices devoted to animal law in Canada, and certainly in BC. Newspapers lionized her unique practice with headlines "Attorney For the Animals- Lawyer's Love of Pets Leads to Unique Legal Firm," or "Lawyer's Pet Project More Than Just a Hobby."

Though rife with pawsible puns, animal law proved itself about 25 years ago to be a developing niche practice. In 2000, when Tillquist moved to the U.S., I acquired her practice. For the last two decades, I've watched my practice and the field develop together.

Animal law is also advancing through teaching and academia. It's been taught at some 10 Canadian law schools. In 2004, Professor Vaughan Black was one of the first to teach it in Canada, at UBC's Allard School of Law. For the last several years, I've been teaching at Allard and at Capilano University, where I founded and taught the first animal law course for paralegals. It's a privilege to teach and mentor the next generation of budding animal law practitioners and immensely gratifying to see my students take their skills out into the real world. Former students were part of my team of lawyers who took a recent groundbreaking, access to justice case for animalsSantics v. City of Vancouver, all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

To lawyers interested in working in this field, I suggest they start by taking on a pro-bono animal law file and see if it's a fit.

My entire practice focuses on animal law and so the cases cover a wide range of issues -- animal cruelty, death due to negligence to 'dangerous' dogs on death row, product liability, veterinary malpractice, pet custody fights for couples and roommates, service animals, animals in strata, tenancies, animals used in science, animals used as food, hunting cases, animals caught in leg hold traps, emaciated animals, issues affecting wild animals, animals in zoos and aquaria, rabbits, raccoons, legislative work, and much more. My daily round could be advocating for a client to save their dog labelled 'dangerous,' defending horse defamation allegations, or volunteering for service groups. From horse defamation to rogue raccoons, these animal law experts have seen it all. We have intriguing cases going back several decades, including joint custody awards of pets and an electrocuted llama case. Other days, it's fairly routine dog bite cases, pet custody disagreements, denials of pet insurance. Like most lawyers, I settle many of my cases and do behind the scenes work for clients.

Currently, there are several lawyers coast to coast practicing animal law and our ranks are growing. Also, some provinces have senior Crowns like Christian Lim and Alexandra Janse who, over the years, have expertly prosecuted hundreds of animal cases.

Animal law issues are also taking up more space in our public debates. In media, nearly every day, stories emerge about animals and the law ranging from grievous cruelty to emaciated zoo animals. There are student animal law clubs, an animal law study group, associations, nonprofits, humane societies and scholars devoting energy to myriad issues affecting animals and the law.

Federal politicians like Green Party MP Elizabeth May are showing how animal law issues need to be on the national agenda. Ms. May attended a wildlife animal law presentation I gave recently to an animal rescue organization and shared insights from her instrumental role in the game-changing ban on keeping cetaceans in captivity that became law in 2019.

The field of animal law continues to expand and refine itself. It's a viable practice. If you decide to jump into it, I guarantee that no two cases will be alike. Like the animals we represent, it's a practice that is varied and always interesting.