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At DU’s Sturm College of Law, a new program trains a lens on animal rights

Before Justin Marceau was a professor in the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, he was a student at Harvard Law School, enrolled in one of the institution’s first animal law courses. That class ignited an interest that has defined Marceau’s career ever since. 

Now he wants to give back to a new generation of students with a passion for animal law. Through a new set of grants from the Brooks Institute for Animal Rights Law and Policy, he has led development of a full-fledged animal law program within the law school. 

Marceau says of DU’s previous animal law efforts. “I was researching a lot in the field, so I’d have students come and meet with me about job opportunities and maybe do some directed research or something like that.”

Through the new animal law program, students not only continue to work closely with Marceau, but also with new program manager Jess Beaulieu. They will benefit from robust events, new research and internship opportunities, as well as a cross-disciplinary approach to animal rights law. 

Already, the program has a full schedule of fall events, including lunchtime career talks with leaders in the field, film screenings, volunteer opportunities and topical discussions. And this is just the beginning. Marceau says plenty more is in store for students invested in animal law. 

“Part of the excitement is that we are letting it be a highly student-run initiative,” he says. “So we want to see what the students want.”

A big part of the work ahead will be developing a Rocky Mountain niche in animal law, as the program is a novelty in the region. Marceau hopes to see it address issues that confront Colorado animals and animal lawyers. He also hopes it will generate jobs for Sturm College of Law graduates. 

Animal rights is a national issue, of course, so the Brooks Institute places a heavy focus on coalition-building across universities. DU joins a cohort of national leaders in the discipline, including Harvard and Yale law schools, Wesleyan University, and Lewis and Clark College. The goal, Marceau says, is to find ways to connect and collaborate, breaking down silos and forming a community of schools and thought leaders collaborating to make the law more hospitable to animals. 

Along the way, DU research will remain a priority. Marceau says he envisions joining with colleagues and students to take on projects that span various academic frameworks to examine the full context of animal laws and policies. For example, he’s working with Philip Tedeschi, clinical professor in the Graduate School of Social Work’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection, to understand new interventions in animal abuse cases beyond a punitive legal approach. 

“We’re looking at pilot studies that measure rates of abuse and why animal abuse occurs. What are the laws that protect animals? How are those laws being used? Then there’s a prescriptive piece, which is what could the law do better? And what do the social sciences suggest would make a law better?”

And more generally, he asks, how can lawyers create social change that positively affects species conservation and individual animal protection?

These are questions students at DU and around the country are eager to tackle, Marceau says. Students at the law school have already shown interest in animal law through work with DU’s Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, but he expects this new program will draw students from around the country and build awareness about this growing field of law. 

“When people come into my classes or come to my talks and they learn, for example, that the legal prohibition on animal cruelty in the state of Colorado largely exempts from its protection animals being raised for food or used for sport, they’re sort of shocked,” Marceau explains. “And so, there’s this assumption that it’s a bleeding-heart progressive cause, but it actually has salience among all of our communities. Animal law is not a partisan issue, it is an issue of logic, law and compassion.” 

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