A group of Western Law students are prepared to speak up on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves, in particular, many of the four-legged variety.
Already a passionate advocate for environmental and public interest law, third-year student Teri Muszak found parallels between those areas and an Animals and the Law course she took last semester from then-visiting professor Peter Sankoff, now an associate professor at The University of Western Ontario.
In response, she launched the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund at Western.
“I thought it was important to start something at the school because it is an up-and-coming area of the law, plus there are a lot of people interested in the animal side of the environmental law,” says Muszak, noting it’s an area of the law not truly defined.
Currently, animal law falls under the property regime area, with a little under criminal law. While some laws are designed to protect animals in Canada, there remains room to evolve.
“Part of the problem in Canada is that, traditionally, there has been very little scrutiny of the laws put in place to protect animals,” Sankoff says. “When we do look at them, the first thing we notice is that they’re really lacking and a lot of criticisms can be brought on various legal grounds. But it’s a rich and vibrant area with a lot of different aspects to it.”
The topic is vast covering areas such as the protection of wildlife and companion animals, food product concerns, animals testing and even custody cases.
The students plan to host speakers, debates and conferences; write journal articles dedicated to animal law; and volunteer with local law firms and advocates.
Muszak began the group on her own, but with Sankoff’s recommendation amalgamated with the U.S.-based Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), becoming the eighth Canadian university to do so. She says this new partnership will benefit Western through the non-profit group’s support, resources and special funding for conferences and events.
While also president of her faculty’s environmental club, running the Pro Bono Students’ Canada program and volunteering, Muszak saw a need when it came to protecting the rights of animals.
“I think it’s an interesting aspect of the law because it aligns with my personal belief about the environment and animals. There is an interesting amount of perspective within this law school on animal law,” she says. “The ultimate goal would be to get this school aware that this is something up and coming and for people to get involved now so they can be informed about animals in law.”
She’s confident the new group will “open up dialogue” around animals rights and get younger students exposed to it early in their university life.
Sankoff, who will be speaking to the members next month, understands the snickers and laughter that may come with the topic.
“The first reaction is it’s some kind of joke or to be laughed at,” he says. “But I think what Teri found, and what a lot of people find, is that when you really start looking at these issues you end up taking them a lot more seriously than you thought you would.”
Sankoff admits he’s often faced with questions of ‘What is this all about?’ and ‘Why do we need such a thing?’ While he says Western Law’s newest group will see the same, he adds they have the ability to change that stigma.
“A student legal group like this has a lot of potential if they’re willing to really challenge what’s out there. So I’m a big fan of this” Sankoff says. “Getting awareness out there is a big first step in shining the light on the deficiencies that exist right now in law. There is a lot that can be done.”
Stephen Wells, ALDF executive director, agrees.
“(We’re) excited about the addition of our newest student ALDF chapter at Western,” he says. “The success of our chapter program lies in the dedication and enthusiasm of law students using their legal skills for making this a kinder, safer world for animals.”