Madison-based lawyer is pioneer in defending animals

Madison-based lawyer is pioneer in defending animals
Photo courtesy of Pamela Hart

One of most inspired stunts of legendary Madison attorney and prankster Eddie Ben Elson came in the 1970s, when he took up the legal cause of his friend Bronson La Follette’s dog, Cutter.

The authorities kept picking up Cutter running loose in Maple Bluff. Nobody was all that upset—La Follette happened to be the state’s attorney general—but Elson believed there was no slight so small it couldn’t be turned into a lifelong feud.

Elson immediately jumped to Cutter’s defense. Could the Maple Bluff puppy police pick Cutter out of a line-up? If it should go to trial, Eddie said, Cutter deserved a jury of his peers—12 Irish setters.

While Elson’s defense of Cutter may have been for laughs, I think Eddie, always a champion of the underdog (as it were) would applaud the fact that over the past 15 years, a Madison attorney has played a major role in making animal law a serious business that has earned the legal system’s attention.

Pamela Hart, a Madison native and 1986 Edgewood High School graduate, serves as director of the Animal Law Program at the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Pam lives in Madison and her work in animal law takes her around the country. This week, she is one of the organizers of the 24th annual Animal Law Conference, Oct. 7-9 in New York City. 

“We sold out,” Hart said, when we spoke last week.

Hart’s route to animal law was a bit circuitous. She earned a business degree at UW–Madison, and then worked in corporate jobs—AT&T, Ford Motor Company—before coming back to Madison for law school in 1999.

It was during her business career, when Hart was living in New York City, that she decided to get a dog. She went to the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty of Animals, where they had 82 dogs available—and a discouragingly long line of people who wanted them.

Hart left and came back a day or two later. There were two dogs remaining.

“I left with the one that didn’t try to bite me,” Hart said.

That was Max, a German shepherd who had spent seven months at the shelter, having come from a previous home environment of abuse and neglect.

Pam and Max developed a close, loving bond. “He opened my eyes to the connection between domestic violence and animal cruelty,” Hart said.

When Hart returned to Madison for law school, she found herself struggling, early on, to find purpose. Her classes were uninspiring. Hart eventually connected with a classmate, Megan Senatori, and together, in Hart’s words, the two women “cooked up this dream.”

The dream involved the protection of animals in the legal system. In 2001, while still in school, Hart and Senatori—who today is in private practice in Madison with Dewitt Ross & Stevens—founded Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims (SAAV), in collaboration with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services (DAIS) and the Dan County Humane Society.

Many victims of domestic abuse are reluctant to leave a violent situation because of what might happen to their pets. SAAV recently celebrated its 15th anniversary of providing, through a confidential network of foster homes, safe harbor for those animals.

A year or two after launching SAAV, Hart and Senatori taught the first animal law class at UW–Madison.

Hart has been with the Animal Law Program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund since 2005, first as a staff attorney and now as director.

Animal law intersects with traditional law in many ways outside observers might not initially grasp.

When Hart said animal law can include First Amendment issues, I struggled to make the connection.

“You’ve heard of ag-gag laws?” Hart said.

She was referencing legislation that makes it illegal to film or photograph activity on a farm without the owner’s consent—laws clearly targeted at animal rights activists seeking to uncover abuses. That, Hart said, is a First Amendment issue.

Animal law is now squarely on the legal map. Where Hart and her colleagues used to have to beg attorneys to do pro bono work—and when they did, they didn’t talk about it—now major law firms do animal work pro bono and boast of it on their websites. With two colleagues—including Animal Legal Defense Fund founder Joyce Tischler—Hart is writing a book about animal law.

Of course, there is no law that can make dogs live longer, and Hart eventually lost her beloved Max.

“I felt like I could never handle that heartbreak again,” Hart said.

But recently, her friend and colleague, Megan Senatori, had a circumstance in which she needed to give up her own beloved dog, a Labrador named Trout, for at least six months, maybe longer. Would Pam take the dog?

Hart thought about it. There were all kinds of reasons to say no. She said yes.

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.