Marissa Nuncio is passionate about your pet.
"Fighting for animal rights is as important as fighting for other social justice issues," said Nuncio, a second-year student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. "It's literally fighting for the underdog."
Nuncio and two of her like-minded classmates were preparing for a trip to Boston this weekend, where they will debate animal rights issues in a national moot court competition.
The event is the second of its kind held at Harvard Law School and reflects growing interest nationally in animal rights advocacy.
"The upcoming generation of lawyers takes this field seriously," said Sherri Woo, a second-year Loyola Law School student who volunteers for the Los Angeles city attorney's animal protection unit. "It shows that [animal rights] is growing and expanding and on its way to becoming an established area of law."
Topics of interest include animal testing for medical and cosmetic research, regulation of factory farms and veterinary malpractice.
Practitioners also see growth as traditional areas of the law expand to accommodate litigation involving pets, such as prohibitions on cruelty to animals, and pet owners who write pets into their wills and expect compensation in the event of injury or death of their animals.
In the last year, Loyola Law School, Chapman University School of Law and Massachusetts School of Law began offering an animal law course after students petitioned for it.
Of the more than 30 law schools that now offer a course in animal law, said professor William A. Reppy Jr. of Duke University School of Law, five benefited from grants from the Bob Barker Endowment Fund for the Study of Animal Rights Law. Barker has donated $4 million to UCLA School of Law, Duke University School of Law, Columbia Law School and Stanford Law School.
"My whole object is to make it a better world for animals," said Barker, the longtime host of "The Price is Right." "To improve life for animals, we must have more stringent laws to protect them and more effectively enforce the laws already on the books."
With the $1-million Barker endowment that Duke received in December, the law school will offer an animal law course and add an animal law clinic, allowing students to work on real cases, next January.
Students "love to get the practical experience," Reppy said. "They can go into court. It's the real world as opposed to the academic world."
At Harvard this weekend, the Animal Law Moot Court and Closing Argument Competitions serve similar purposes, said John Lovvorn, a judge at the competition and the vice president of animal protection litigation at the Humane Society of the United States.
"It's all part of a much larger push to give practical experience to law students in the field of animal law," said Lovvorn, who is an adjunct professor of animal law at George Washington University School of Law and Lewis & Clark Law School.
"In law school, they can get the basic theory of the law, but they need somewhere to go if they're actually going to practice this in the field," Lovvorn said. Few firms in the country focus on animal law, and most animal law cases are handled as pro bono work by large law firms specializing in other fields, Lovvorn said.
"You can't get a job in animal law," Reppy said. "The number of animal law jobs per year is no more than six or seven. I'm preparing my students to be ready for the opportunity [to volunteer] when it comes along."
Animal law is gaining prominence as more cases enter the judicial system. For instance, a Maine man was sentenced in December to five years in prison for killing his girlfriend's cat, the stiffest sentence for animal cruelty in Maine history, according to the Maine Animal Coalition.
"I'm actually teaching the law as it's forming. It also makes it difficult to teach because it's hard to define what it is. It's very fluid," said Cindy A. McNeely, who teaches at Florida State University College of Law.
Diane Sullivan, who created an animal law course at the Massachusetts School of Law last month, said the breadth of the topic also poses a challenge.
"It takes a tremendous amount of time to prepare for a course because when you teach animal law you have to take a look at the constitutional, property, criminal and tort issues," Sullivan said. "Students tell me this course is a great review of other areas of law."
Maya Morales, a second-year Loyola Law School student and member of the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, said some "look down on animal law."
"People kind of feel like it's not real law because you're not dealing with people. It's not as respected as some other fields.
"On the other hand, there's not as many people speaking for animals and animal rights," Morales said.
For UCLA law student Cheryl Leahy, animal rights have been a lifelong passion, and she feels that she can make a difference through the law. "Everything in this field is new and cutting-edge. It's very exciting," said Leahy, president of the UCLA Animal Law Society. "It's something you have to be dedicated to, but it's absolutely worth the risk."