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A lot of people think the legal profession has gone to the dogs. Beverly M. Poppell agrees, and she could not be happier. Poppell, a lawyer with New York City’s Office of Collective Bargaining, was recently named the first chairwoman of the New York State Bar Association’s new Special Committee on Animals and the Law — something of a confluence of legal eagles and legal beagles. Its credo could well be “caveat canine” — or some other variation encompassing the furry, feathery and scaly critters that romp, slither, flitter and crawl through our lives and often our homes. “The time is now and what we are hoping to do is become a resource not only for members and their clients, but also the public,” said Poppell, a dispute resolution expert who, in addition to her day job, is a labor relations administrative law judge and volunteer mediator for the Civil Courts of New York and the federal courts of the Eastern District. “We are not necessarily looking to initiate new legislation, but to take a look at the needs and interests of our members and the public.” With the new committee, the state Bar joins several other lawyer groups, including the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, that have formed panels devoted to the practice of animal law. Although there are still relatively few attorneys who practice animal law per se, issues with non-humans are arising with greater frequency in civil and criminal cases. For instance, the recent dog-mauling trial in San Francisco raised questions over the criminal culpability of owners. In that case, Marjorie Knoller was at first convicted of murder and involuntary manslaughter and her husband, Robert Noel, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter after their dogs attacked and killed a neighbor. Studies show that many killers started off torturing animals. In response, New York state three years ago enacted “Buster’s Law,” which elevates to a felony the intentional killing or injuring of a household pet. Another New York law requires schools to instruct students on the humane treatment of animals. Animals are often at the center of landlord-tenant squabbles and divorce settlements. There are issues over the treatment of farm animals and laboratory animals and wildlife, cases of malpractice against veterinarians and debates over whether animals should enjoy legal status only as property, or as something more than chattel. Agriculture is the biggest business in New York state, and issues often arise involving the treatment and ownership of livestock. Legal questions crop up in matters where people live with unusual and exotic pets, like alligators, that are seemingly well out of their habitats. A family in an urban upstate community was pretty much forced to move to more rural environs when their pet llama ate the neighbor’s petunias and their rooster regularly summoned the entire neighborhood at the crack of dawn. “More and more we recognize that animals play a role in our daily lives, and, of course, the law plays a major role in our daily lives,” said Poppell, a former broadcast journalist in New York City who once gave up an apartment rather than give up her dog. “It is natural that at some point the two things would come together.” PRACTICAL APPROACH In 1999, Harvard Law School and Georgetown University Law Center announced their first classes ever in animal law — a specialty now taught at approximately 20 institutions. Roughly 1,000 lawyers are active in the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which bankrolls the Animal Law Journal published out of Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. Some lawyers who advocate animal rights have become vegetarians on the theory that there is something inherently unsettling about attorneys eating their clients. The state Bar’s new committee was established by President Lorraine Power Tharp, who lives in Saratoga Springs with her attorney husband and two mutts — she calls them “mixed-breed” dogs. Tharp said the committee will take a “very practical, problem-solving” approach. “This is not a group with political agendas, but instead includes those who deal with animal matters as part of their professions,” said Tharp, a partner at Whiteman, Osterman & Hanna in Albany. “We are excited about the committee’s potential to get to the heart of animal legal issues and to address the needs and interests of the community and our members.” Unlike most bar committees, the Special Committee on Animals and the Law is a cross-discipline panel. “What is key here is that we’re not limiting our universe to lawyers,” Poppell said. “We’re also including other people on the front line of animal-related issues: veterinarians, law enforcement officials, academicians and psychologists, among others.” Members include Mariann Sullivan, chairwoman of the City Bar’s Committee on Legal Issues Pertaining to Animals; veterinarian David Lee of the Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine; Elinor Molbegott of the Humane Society of the United States; and Sheila Schwartz, who chairs the United Federation of Teachers’ Humane Education Committee.

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