As one of the nation’s top animal law attorneys, Boalt lecturer Bruce Wagman has some strong feelings about Michael Vick, the NFL star quarterback recently imprisoned on dog-fighting charges. Surprisingly, the prevailing sentiment is one of gratitude.
“We thank him for what he did,” Wagman says of Vick, who was sentenced to 23 months in jail for funding a dog-fighting ring and helping to kill pit bulls that did not fight well. “Michael Vick has done a lot for the animal protection movement by being the felon he is. If someone like you or me committed the same crimes, it wouldn’t receive much attention and millions of Americans wouldn’t be so incensed about dog-fighting.”
Vick’s celebrity status and the intense media coverage of his trial brought significant attention to animal abuse. Although Wagman thinks that will help raise the public’s consciousness about dog-fighting, he does not expect it to change existing laws or individual sentencing. But his hope is that the Vick case—and some of its horrifying details—will prompt more states to enact civil liability statutes for animal cruelty.
Currently, North Carolina is the only state that allows civil actions for such offenses. But animal rights advocates, led by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, are using momentum from Vick’s sentencing to push for civil liability elsewhere. In particular, their legislative effort has gained promising traction in California, Illinois, and Oregon.
“We just won a big hoarding case in North Carolina,” Wagman says of a disturbing, obsessive practice where an owner continually acquires animals, yet fails to provide minimal standards of care and recognize that such squalid conditions harm the animals. “With civil actions available there, we’re saving hundreds of dogs from abuse and we’re saving North Carolina hundreds of thousands of dollars because the state doesn’t have to prosecute all of these crimes or take care of these animals in municipal shelters. There’s no downside to enacting a law like this.”
In addition to his animal law practice at Schiff Hardin in San Francisco, Wagman teaches animal law on a rotating basis at Boalt, Stanford, Hastings, and USF. Wagman, who co-authored the nation’s first casebook for animal law students, will offer his class at Boalt this semester.
Given the fast-changing nature of animal law, Wagman and his coauthors have modified the casebook three times since he began teaching in 1996. His course features an objective survey of laws that apply to animals where their nature as living, feeling beings is considered by the legal system, and weekly lessons from his practice on the front lines of animal protection litigation. Current events and Wagman’s caseload—including illegal farm animal confinement cases in California, hoarding cases in North Carolina, and litigation to protect chimpanzees and gibbons in sanctuary settings—make the class dynamic for students.
“It’s a fantastic course,” says 3L Brett Broadwater, who took it as a 1L and is now co-president of the Boalt Hall Animal Law Society. “A real strength is that it surveys so many different areas of law as they relate to animals. Criminal law, trusts and estates and constitutional law all come into play, and (Wagman) does a great job pulling it all together.”
Broadwater also credits Wagman’s class for his stellar showing in last year’s National Animal Advocacy Competition, hosted annually by Harvard Law School. Competing against teams from law schools across the country, Broadwater and fellow Boalt student Van Swearingen won the Best Brief award and placed second in oral arguments. Broadwater hopes that the Vick case sparks interest in Wagman’s class, and in animal law as a whole.
“Michael Vick spending nearly two years in jail shows that America is very much concerned about animal abuse and that no one is immune from punishment,” Broadwater says. “Media attention on the case has also exposed that certain areas of the law don’t protect animals as well as many Americans think they should.”
U.S. law primarily treats animals as property, which means they are evaluated by their market value—much like a table or chair. Wagman says that while removing animals from property status is a worthy long-range objective, animal rights advocates should focus on immediate, attainable goals like enacting civil liability laws in more states.
Calling Vick “the poster child for animal cruelty,” Wagman is pleased that Vick’s 23-month sentence will increase awareness and scrutiny of animal abuse. Nevertheless, he has no misconceptions about how much work remains to curb dog-fighting specifically, or animal cruelty in general.
“There are dog-fighting rings in San Francisco, Marin County, and all over the country,” Wagman says. “It’s not a regional or cultural activity as some have suggested. Regardless, there’s no cultural excuse for abject cruelty. If such a culture exists, it needs to be changed.”
– By Andrew Cohen