Words: Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton (October 2018)
Image Credits: Open Source
Reading Time: 7 minutes

When I attended law school, the practice of animal law was in its infancy. At that time, the application of general law to issues involving animals was the norm. It did not work very well for animals.  They were considered property and property, by definition, is a physical asset.

Today animals are considered companions and family members and are treated as such.  Billions of dollars annually are spent on the health, maintenance and happiness of the family pet.  Pet food companies spend millions on food research and marketing.  People buy health insurance and life insurance on their animals. More importantly, unlike property, animals are emotionally bonded with people, like children

Animal law is now a viable area of practice.  Smart lawyers, affiliated with animal advocate organizations such as ALDF, HSUS, PETA and Global Animal Law Project, are trailblazing new ways to think about animals and the law.  Now entire legal practices focus solely on animal law.

It has been 50 years since the United States passed the Federal Animal Welfare Act.  Since its passage, animals, their treatment and the issues surrounding their quality of life have become the basis of much litigation.  These causes of action are being brought in an attempt to integrate the care of animals, on a broader scale, into the law. Companion animals are now treated in a way that 50 years ago would have been seen as absurd.

The presence of animals in our human lives has also been found to be an integral part of better human health. Studies show that human/animal bonds benefit overall human health and psyche. This connection also often fuels the conflict involving an animal.

As a by-product of our increased awareness and request for optimal care for the animals in our lives, conversations about conflicts over animals have become more adversarial. Most conflicts arise out of strictly law-based advocacy and head directly to court. Often missing is a mutually developed transition to a better outcome.  Passions run high and parties’ head often to court where conversations are usually brief in duration.

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People having the conversations about animal welfare need to consider becoming more collaborative. Most people want the best for animals, they just define it differently. Education and peaceful non-judgmental conversations can foster a new and better means of caring for animals.

In the 21st-century, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has gained application.  Now it is the go-to method of resolving problems that otherwise would be mired in litigation.  Employment, Labor, Matrimonial and Commercial Law are just a few of the current legal fields steeped in the value of Alternative Dispute Resolution..

Since these areas of law have found ADR helpful, why not apply it to conflicts over animals? Some reasons given by animal law practitioners for not initially applying ADR in animal litigation include, it doesn’t set precedent and its not been done before. Shifting the current paradigm from being purely litigiousand rights-based to being a more collaborative and discussion-based is not easy.  It can, however, mean the difference between years of litigation and continued suffering or a continuous shift for better welfare of the animal.

In the United Kingdom the law firm of Nockolds started the first Veterinary Mediation Service that has shown ADR as the better way to solve conflicts between people over animals.  The last review of the process showed that client satisfaction was an unanticipated triumph.

These scenario show people can apply ADR to animal law.  Practices might try a small-scale pilot program, which can be evaluated on its progress toward a mutual goal.  The discussions and outcomes from this pilot program will serve the animals and prove that a shift to ADR will make change a reality.

Having a discussion in an ADR venue facilitates the consideration of a more educational perspective. If people who love animals work together it may shift the way in which conflicts over animals are perceived.

However, experiments in this type of conflict solving need funding. ADR processes by their nature are not splashy. There is little if any funding earmarked for research into how a collaborative process would work in animal law.  However, finding funding for this process would allow a platform on which common ground, working collaboratively and implementing immediate and long-term solutions could flourish.

Another benefit of using ADR when addressing issues involving animals is that it creates a venue in which acceptance of change is immediate. When a law is passed you then need to find a way to implement that law.  This can be problematic and often perpetuates the conflict. While creating the law you often alienate those people needed to implement, enforce or follow it.

Why not be part of a conversation exploring what might be best for all from the start? It may take a little longer to facilitate this conversation with a neutral mediator or collaborative professional, yet it will be worth it.  Once created, implementation of the process will be shorter and more peaceful.

Animal conflicts are very emotional. They are not easily resolved to anyone’s full satisfaction in a law-based model.  Law is supposed to be applied free from emotion. Therein lies the difficulty in finding and implementing solutions in conflicts about animals using the law.

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The steps I use to facilitate conversations over the care of animals are as follows:

Address the problem: Letting a conflict fester without addressing it early or surrounding yourself only with people who agree with you, will not help find a long-term workable solution

Keep necessary individuals in the discussion: It is not easy to get everyone to agree. Being able to keep people of differing opinions together in a discussion is key.  It helps expedite the finding of a long lasting solution and paradigm shift.

Acknowledge and appreciate another’s point of view: It does not mean you agree. It simply means you acknowledge an alternate opinion; their actions have value and are respected.

Stop talking and listen for understanding: Listening for understanding is highly underrated and when animals are concerned is much more effective than listening for response. If you stop talking and listen you’ll find you have certain commonalities and areas of agreement that will facilitate a more peaceful conversation.

Drop the need to be right: This is the hardest piece of the program.  We all feel our way is the best way. Dropping the need to be right, because you believe you are, is one of the most powerful things a person can do. In a facilitated discussion, you don’t need to be right, right now. You can find a way to be, as I put it, “right-er later” because you will have more information.  From this increase in information you can gain perspective on commonalities that you both hold.  These commonalities will support your position while not detracting from their position.

Let what others say roll off your back: Being defensive and reactive only exacerbates the gap between the problem and the solution. You cannot identify a solution if you dwell on the problem. Solutions are derived from being steeped in a collaborative discussion. Letting what someone says roll off your back is also one of the best ways to allow for apology.

These steps, which support ADR, will give the parties the ability to be heard, respected and understood for their side of the story. New, more powerful paradigm shifts can be found and implemented.  People will feel their voices were heard. They are then more likely to adhere to the resolutions. Decisions handed down after litigious interactions are less likely to be peacefully implemented.

ADR may be the best next step in the legal evolution and status of animals. Discussing strategies and solutions amongst all interested parties will benefit the most important parties of all in the discussion, the animals we are trying to save.

DEBRA HAMILTON spent 30 years as a practicing litigator, but she is now a full-time mediator and conflict coach for people in disputes over animals. She works both nationwide and internationally. She has far-reaching experience in resolving interpersonal conflicts involving animals, and she is also well-known in the world of purebred dogs as a top breeder and exhibitor of Irish setters and long-haired dachshunds. Debra speaks widely on the topic of how mediation techniques can help people address conflicts without litigation. She has presented at veterinary schools, the American Kennel Club, the American Veterinary Medical Law Association, the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators, the Living With Animals conference, state bar association Animal Law Committee meetings, and animal interest group meetings. Her book, published in 2015, is “Nipped in the Bud Not in the Butt-How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts over Animals Read more at Hamilton Law and Mediation here.

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