Inside the booming field of animal law, in which animals have their
own interests -- and their own lawyers.
IN RECENT YEARS, Dr. Amy Marder, a veterinarian practicing in
Lexington, has found herself called upon to decide which human
"parent" a pet prefers.
Pet custody disputes have become an increasingly common fixture in
divorce cases and Marder, an animal behavior specialist, has consulted
in several. To do a proper evaluation, she likes to spend at least an
hour and a half with the couple and the pet. She asks the owners a
barrage of questions: which of the two spends more time with the
animal, who plays with it more, who feeds it. She asks about the pet's
upbringing, its temperament, how much it exercises.
Marder frowns on so-called "calling contests," a method used by
lawyers in some custody cases, in which the owners stand at opposite
ends of a room and call the pet to see which way it will go. She prefers to observe the animal's body language as it interacts with its
owners. She looks at whether it sits closer to one or the other, and
how it reacts when each pets it.
A decade ago, the idea that a divorce would involve "custody" of a
pet, much less that the decision would factor in the pet's own
predilections, would have been dismissed by most lawyers as absurd.
Pets were property, and not very valuable property at that, to be
balanced against all of the other stuff that is split up in a divorce
- nobody, after all, talks about joint custody of an armoire.
But recent years have seen an intensifying effort on the part of
animal rights activists, legislators, prosecutors, and legal scholars
to change the way the law treats animals.
Still, a few animal lawyers see the evolution in the law paving the
way to a more fundamental rethinking of the legal status of what they
call, to emphasize our own connection to the animal world, "nonhuman
Steven Wise, a Boston-based animal rights lawyer and a leading animal
rights theorist, shares that view. "The idea that nonhuman animals are
worthy of anything - that they have some value that's worthy of
fighting about in court - that will lay the foundation for litigation
that would actually lead to nonhuman animals getting some sort of
equal rights," he says.