On Thursday, March 24, Vermont Law School is hosting its first-ever Animal Law Society Symposium, an event that recognizes a growing field of legal studies: the rights of nonhuman species.
Assistant professor Pamela Vesilind teaches the animal law seminar at VLS. She explains that, two years ago, her students circulated a petition calling on the school to offer more course options in animal law. The South Royalton school, which
U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks as having the nation’s top environmental-law program, responded by expanding its offerings. A seminar in animal-rights jurisprudence is scheduled for this summer. The fall-term animal-law seminar will go from two to three credits.
Vesilind gave up a lucrative profession in software development to pursue a career in animal law. She points to a flurry of recent bills in the Vermont legislature — including the “Pete the Moose” bill, which would safeguard wildlife under the state’s public-trust doctrine — as evidence of burgeoning interest in this field.
“A lot of Americans assume that there are more legal protections for animals than there really are,” explains Vesilind. “It’s like environmental law was in the ’70s — not a lot of environmental laws per se, but a lot of people interested in protecting the environment.”
In the last year, Vesilind has also had more students lobby the legislature, attend animal-law moot court and closing-argument competitions, and pursue independent studies related to animal law.
Among them is Michelle Sinnott, a first-year law student who cochairs the school’s Animal Law Society. A former paralegal at a public-interest law firm in Washington, D.C., Sinnott says she first got interested in the field while working on a lawsuit against Feld Entertainment, owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus.
“One case and I was hooked!” says Sinnott, who recently took third place at an animal-law competition at Harvard University. “Truthfully, the only reason I’m here at law school is to pursue animal law.”