New Mexico's Pet Resource SUMMER 2005


by Viki Elkey

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Attorneys, law students, animal activists and interested community members gathered together recently in Albuquerque at a seminar to explore legal issues concerning animals in New Mexico. Topics included: animal and legal rights; recently passed New Mexico state and local animal ordinances; and disaster planning for companion animals.

On Friday, May 6, the State Bar of New Mexico conducted a Continuing Legal Education Class for attorneys entitled, “Recognizing Animal Interests in the Law.” The day-long seminar included nationally accredited speakers as well as local attorneys and elected officials, and focused on several issues related to animals and the law in this country.

The seminar began with Dr. Steven Wise of Harvard University, who opened by stating that he is not an animal rights attorney as animals have no rights. He then explored the history of legal rights for humans, including slaves, and what it would look like if certain animals had certain rights. Dr. Wise also discussed how the perception of what is necessary to attain rights is incomplete, based on the limited knowledge of the complex social behaviors that many animal species experience.

Basic legal rights, according to Dr. Wise, include at the very least liberty and equality, which are at the heart of all law, past and present, here and elsewhere. It is the basic right of liberty that Dr. Wise and others question in relation to animals, and how animals who have a sense of self should be granted limited rights under law. Dr. Wise also spoke about language. He noted that four species of great apes and two species of bottle-nosed dolphins can definitely communicate using the rudiments of language, further evidence that many nonhuman animals have complex social systems yet to be fully understood.

Joyce Tischler, Executive Director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) spoke about prosecuting animal abuse. She highlighted a case her organization is involved with in North Carolina involving a particularly egregious case of animal hoarding. Ms. Tischler spoke about a North Carolina law that allowed the ALDF to pursue a civil right of action on behalf of the animals in this case. The law allowed the action because the animals were being cruelly treated under state law, and since public policy prohibited cruelty, and the animals could not pursue legal action themselves, other entities are allowed to act on their behalf. Dr. Tischler provided samples of a “model animal cruelty civil injunction act” based on the North Carolina law. In addition to allowing people to sue civilly for animals being abused, the law also provides for the defendant to post a bond to care for the animals—many of whom are in need of veterinary care after being in abusive situations.

David Thompson with the New Mexico Attorney General’s office discussed how and when the Attorney General’s office gets involved in animal cruelty cases. Some of the examples Mr. Thompson gave included handling appeals out of the District Attorney’s office, civil seizure suits with the Livestock Board, issues with the racing commission, and animal researchers. He highlighted the infamous Coulston Foundation in Alamogordo, and how the Attorney General was able to go after them for the chimpanzees’ endowments that were misspent.

Kate Rindy of the Santa Fe Humane Society and Jay Sabatucci of the Humane Society of the United States both spoke about disasters, disaster planning and how to cooperate as a community to make sure animals are evacuated and cared for in an emergency. Ms. Rindy spoke of the Cerro Grande fires, and how the animal community in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Florida, Missouri and Washington, D.C. pulled together to help over 700 displaced animals in less than a week. She explained that for the shelter and the animals affected, providing veterinary care and properly identifying all animals were the biggest challenges.

Mr. Sabatucci emphasized the importance of being prepared with a plan for your companion animals before a disaster or emergency arise, especially since polls show that over 65% of all Americans have companion animals. When individuals within a community are prepared, it helps the employees and volunteers who are tasked with caring for our displaced companion animals in an emergency, and in the process makes the situation less stressful for the animals. He also emphasized the importance of making sure that animal agencies are involved with the various governmental agencies that collaborate in emergencies, and that companion animals are considered in evacuation plans.

The afternoon sessions continued with Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez and City Councilor Sally Mayer. The Mayor spoke about the recently passed Scooby’s law and other animal legislation in New Mexico, while Councilor Mayer updated the audience on the revision of the animal control ordinances in Albuquerque.

Mayor Chavez also spoke of changing the law and the culture in New Mexico regarding animals, and how as a city, Albuquerque is challenging itself to become more humane to the animals who live there. He spoke of the continued statewide legislative efforts to ban cockfighting in New Mexico, saying that it is difficult to market a viable city economy with cockfighting in the backyard. Councilor Mayer continued in this vein, stating that the new ordinance in Albuquerque will define neglect as cruelty, and that the city will be educating people on how to care for their animals humanely.

The seminar ended with a panel discussion on disasters, with Assistant Albuquerque Attorney Greg Wheeler, Albuquerque Animal Care Center’s (AACC) Director Denise Wilcox and Max Johnson from the New Mexico Office of Emergency Management joining the group. The panel answered questions about New Mexico preparedness in the face of a disaster. Ms. Wilcox stated that AACC would be working closely with emergency management to ensure a comprehensive evacuation plan is in place for Albuquerque’s shelter animals, and encouraged the audience to have their homes prepared as well.

The broad range of topics, coupled with the comprehensive local and national panel, made the seminar worthwhile for both practicing attorneys and activists looking to better understand the law as it pertains to animals. The State Bar of New Mexico is to be commended for continually providing quality education, and for realizing that by treating all members of our society humanely we ensure a future where compassion is a valued and sought-after commodity.

Viki Harrison Elkey is a campaign manager and lobbyist for Animal Protection of New Mexico and Animal Protection Voters. She and her husband Tom live in Río Rancho with their family of rescued dogs and cats.

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