Taylor Hansen got up on the witness stand in early June 2017 and testified in a Connecticut courtroom about why she thought defendant Raabbi Ismail should be put in prison for abusing three pit bulls. State prosecutors had charged Ismail with raising the dogs to fight. Ismail was asking a judge to allow him to enter the state's Accelerated Rehabilitation Program as a first-time offender. If accepted in the program, Ismail would eventually have his record wiped clean.
During her testimony, Hansen described in horrifying detail the abuse the dogs suffered at the hands of Ismail. One dog was found wandering the streets, emaciated and scarred from fighting. Two others were found in a home stinking with rotting food and feces.
Hansen, however, was no ordinary witness. The University of Connecticut Law School student was the first animal advocate in Connecticut to testify in an animal abuse case. While many states have advocates that protect the rights of victims and children, Connecticut is the first in the U.S. to appoint legal advocates for abused animals.
"Every state has the problem of overburdened courts that understandably prioritize human cases over animal cases in allocating resources," UConn law professor Jessica Rubin, a specialist in animal law and one of the advocates, told the Associated Press. "Here's a way to help."
Hansen is one of eight court-approved animal advocates in Connecticut. According to news reports, after listening to her arguments for 45 minutes, the judge granted Ismail's request, despite admitting the charges were serious. Ismail had never been arrested before, and the crime was not on a list that would have kept him out of the program. Regardless of the outcome, other states are watching whether Connecticut's animal advocate law works.
"Animals are living, sentient beings, but the law inadequately classifies them as property," Lora Dunn, director of the criminal justice program at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, said in an email. "The Animal Legal Defense Fund believes that all animals deserve legal protection from human mistreatment — regardless of their current categorization under the law... As vulnerable victims and living beings who suffer at the hands of their abusers, animals deserve to have their interests represented in court."
Under the Connecticut law, judges can appoint an animal advocate in a criminal case. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can also request one. The law is known as "Desmond's Law" and was named for a dog strangled to death by his owner in 2012. The statute went into effect in late 2016 and since then, advocates have been appointed in five cases. Among other things, the advocates can investigate a case, make arguments and present recommendations to a judge. In arguing for the law's passage, supporters cited research that found people who abuse animals are often violent toward people.
Critics have their concerns, including the American Kennel Club, which believes the law could have a negative impact on the rights of animal owners.
"Individual owners could be forced to share their ownership rights and duties with courts and third parties, or worse, have their rights diminished," Sheila Goffe, vice president of government relations for the AKC, said in an email. "As a result, third-party appointees could use the court system to force a person to make decisions that they believe to not be in the best interest of their animal, including deprivation of ownership rights."
Although the AKC condemns animal abuse, Goffe said the traditional legal treatment of animals as personal property of their owners must be protected. "We believe that... Connecticut was already capable of fairly adjudicating animal cruelty and other animal issues without, in a larger sense, potentially jeopardizing the current legal status of animals and without, on the smaller level, involving outside organizations and interests to influence the adjudication of individual cases," Goffe said. "State law did not confuse the roles of animal owners and the government."
The new law has sparked a larger discussion of whether other animals should have legal rights just like humans. Supporters argue that animals have the right to live their lives free from exploitation and suffering. In their view, animals have inherent worth. Current law characterizes animals as property, and gives them certain protections based on their usefulness to people, such as those used as companion animals. As a result, the law provides greater legal protection to those animals then say, animals raised for food, fur, entertainment or research.
"The Animal Legal Defense Fund strongly believes that the law ought to recognize animals' ability to feel pain and suffer, as well as their interest in living their lives without fear and distress," Dunn said. Connecticut's law, Dunn continued, adopts the idea "that all vulnerable victims, including animals, deserve to have their voices heard."