Woman Typing

 Essay

Each month, the Compassion Consortium offers an essay on a topic related to our tenets. These are authored by the Compassion Consortium Spiritual Team as well as guest writers.

September 2021

My Life as an Animal Lawyer
by Ginny Mikita
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Ginny K. Mikita, Mikita Kruse Law Center and Attorneys For Animals. (Image credit: WKTV)

When I share with folks that I am an animal lawyer, inevitably, questions follow. “What is animal law?” “How did you get involved in that?” “Who are your clients?” “Who pays you?” These are some of my answers.

 

Animal law is a combination of statutory and case law affecting the well-being of nonhuman animals (companion animals, wildlife, animals used in entertainment or sport, and animals raised for food and research). 
In my mind, my clients are nonhuman beings; however, I am retained and paid (and often not paid) by human beings such as guardians of animals, rescues, shelters, and societies caring for these beautiful beings. I also work with organizations working to abolish animal abuse both individually and societally.

Early Inspiration

I am in fifth grade. The nurse at my elementary school calls my mother to tell her I picked up something on my way to school. Fortunately—not a disease. Unfortunately—a grocery bag full of kittens stuffed into a bush. Home they go to be bottle-fed until we can adopt them into loving families. They aren’t the first. Several stray dogs preceded the kittens. 


I am in ninth grade. My family is living in Madrid, Spain (my father is an Air Force fighter pilot). We have season tickets to bullfights. The tourism board convinces my parents this bloody “sport” is an “art.” Amidst the crowd, I am horrified and secretly cheer for the bull. 


I am a senior at the University of Florida. I need an “easy” elective course to graduate. I enroll in “Contemporary Moral Issues,” a one-paper course, thinking I’ll write about my opposition to the death penalty. The electric chair is only 40 miles from campus and has only recently been brought back to life (or death). Several weeks into the semester, we study animal rights, and my Birkenstock-clad professor requires us to read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. I am shocked by the revelations and even more so by my ignorance. How could I be so naive about how steak ends up on my plate? I quit eating meat. My mother characterizes it as a “phase.”

 

My Journey to Private Practice

It’s 1988, and I’m a corporate banker in Washington, D.C. I stop at a newsstand. An animal rights publication, “The Animals’ Agenda,” catches my eye. A local organization, the Farm Animal Reform Movement (FARM)—now called the Farm Animal Rights Movement—needs volunteers. I spend four hours stuffing envelopes with a guy who has just returned from India who gently shares his decision to go vegetarian. I am convinced and, to this day, will not eat anyone who, even arguably, e.g., shrimp, has a face.


After much soul-searching while crunching numbers, I decide I want to be an animal lobbyist. Mistakenly believing a law degree is a prerequisite, I apply to law schools that appear to offer supportive, social-justice atmospheres for such work. My applications begin with a detailed and gruesome (I am young and passionate!) description of the inhumane treatment of factory-farmed chickens and end with a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote about my hope for my life: “to know even one life has breathed easier because [I] have lived.” I choose Notre Dame Law School, being only partially correct in assessing the support I expect to receive in this endeavor.
 

I apply to animal rights organizations throughout the world for a summer internship and quickly discover the lack of available paid positions. FARM offers me an unpaid job with room and board. To cover other expenses, I apply for a Notre Dame Law School Student-Funded Fellowship funded by students in high-paying firm jobs to benefit students pursuing “alternative” (read: low-paying) careers. My application is the most controversial being considered. Work on behalf of non-human animals who don’t, according to the Catholic tradition, have souls is deemed highly suspect in terms of its ultimate benefit to society. Despite intense opposition, I receive funding and spend the summer reviewing what little federal legislation benefits farm animals.
 

Following graduation, a two-year federal judicial clerkship, and four weeks at a large firm, I accept an offer to serve as in-house counsel to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. I adjust my life accordingly by ridding my closet of leather, wool, and silk and my kitchen of all foods containing animal by-products. Milk does not do a body good.
 

I’m responsible for, among other things, persuading prosecutors throughout the country to enforce animal anti-cruelty statutes against furriers. I take videotapes of chinchilla furriers performing genital electrocution, along with American Veterinary Medical Association’s recommendations for humane euthanasia, and affidavits from veterinarians opposing this barbaric practice to each for review. The Northern California prosecutor immediately recognizes the rancher (who evidently engaged in the killing as a nighttime hobby only) as the court-appointed psychiatrist whose duties included determining whether defendants are fit to stand trial. Upon threat of prosecution, the electrocutor/psychiatrist moves to South America.

Lady, Bandit, and Rocky

 

I return to Michigan in 1994 and begin developing my dream practice as well as help found the Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan with others whose passions continue to inspire me to this day. 
A man calls me, desperate because his two companions, Lady, a pregnant Dalmatian, and Bandit, a Labrador mix unfortunately named, are on death row for chasing a neighbor’s sheep. My interest in the death penalty has come full circle; however, my clients have four legs, not two. 

 

I am successful in convincing the District Court to stay their executions, pending appeal. I spend sleepless nights preparing, only to have the judge not even lift his eyes before muttering, “Appeal denied.” I’m devastated. 
 

I request Lady’s execution be stayed pending the birth of her puppies. The Court again denies my request. Not willing to accept the adage bad things happen in threes, I make a final request that a veterinarian be permitted to execute the dogs by lethal injection. (The County’s usual practice is to place unwanted animals, several at a time, into a barrel, slowly filling it with carbon monoxide, the animals desperately scratching to free themselves). Finally, I am perversely successful. Following this case, I work to replace the barrel with lethal injection for all animals in several municipalities, not just animals fortunate enough to be convicted of crimes.
 

Several months later, Rocky the Rottweiler’s family urgently contacts me to defend his death sentence. His crime—as far as I am able to determine—is being born a Rottweiler. Rottweilers and pit bull-type breeds are frequent victims of “breedism,” resulting from unfair media attention and fear. I propose sparing Rocky’s life on the condition he reside in a neighboring community. Fortunately, the prosecutor is reasonable and agrees to my proposal, although she also requires Rocky to be neutered. Rocky probably differs with my “reasonableness” characterization. 

Through the Years

Over the past now-25+ years, I have had many opportunities to use my legal education in a variety of ways, many of which I could never have imagined while in law school.

  • pursuing veterinary malpractice cases, e.g., a local veterinarian accidentally euthanized my client’s beloved cat in front of her and her granddaughter after being wrongly directed into the unmarked euthanasia room with her cat by staff;

  • intervening in housing/condo disputes involving “no pet” policies, breed-specific discrimination, and other by-laws;

  • lobbying on behalf of Michigan Humane Society against an effort to add mourning doves to the list of game species allowed to be hunted; 

  • defending three individuals ticketed for parking on a highway exit ramp to rescue the victim of a hit and run—a golden retriever mix named Buddy. We prevailed based on a Michigan Supreme Court decision from the turn of the 20th century in which the Court determined a hat that had blown off a gentleman’s head and for which he stopped on a highway constituted an “emergency” under the governing statute. Women’s World even ran the Buddy story;

  • drafting estate plans/trusts for companion animals;

  • seeking damages for the wrongful death or injury to a companion animal (often at the hands of groomers and other unlicensed professionals);

  • drafting legislation and testifying before federal and state legislatures and local legislative bodies regarding anti-cruelty and domestic violence laws (e.g., ensuring animals are protected “property” under personal protection orders);

  • assisting an Animal Legal Defense Fund attorney with federal litigation to ensure meetings held regarding animals used in research remained open to the public under federal mandate; and

  • drafting and reviewing contracts for rescues and in-home hospice and euthanasia veterinarians, a burgeoning field.

 

***

When James Hillman describes his “acorn theory” in The Soul’s Code—in which he theorizes each life is formed by a particular image, an image that is the essence of that life and calls it to a destiny—I understand. I believe somewhere deep in my soul, I’ve been “called” to be an animal lawyer. 
 

And what a rewarding experience to represent “clients” who are all innocent.