Legal eagle

Federal prosecutor turns her attention to animals
By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2007

It was the case of the injured owl that got Nadine Pellegrini thinking about changing the direction of her career.

Ms. Pellegrini, an assistant U.S. attorney, was tracking down evidence to prosecute a farmer who had set a leg-hold trap on a 10-foot pole to ensnare a hawk that had been preying on his chickens, thereby violating federal laws that make it illegal to take or kill a raptor.

The owl had been caught and had been found swinging by one leg. The bird had been rescued and taken to the Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. After speaking with the clinic’s director, Dr. Mark Pokras, Ms. Pellegrini departed, mulling over a career in veterinary medicine.

That evening, Ms. Pellegrini went on the Web site of the North Grafton veterinary school and came across a program offering a master’s degree in animals and public policy.

“I thought, `Wow, this dovetails with what I do,’” she said the other day.
Ms. Pellegrini, a prosecutor for a quarter of a century, has spent the past 16 years in the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston. After she got her acceptance to the animals and public policy program, she told her boss, U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, about her plans.
“He couldn’t have been nicer about it,” Ms. Pellegrini recalled. “He called me at home. He thought it was a wonderful program. He said, `I think people ought to follow what they’re passionate about.’”
Ms. Pellegrini took an unpaid leave of absence from her job as deputy chief of the major crimes unit and started work on her master’s degree last summer. She will complete the requirements for the degree in August and has promised her colleagues that she will return to the U.S. attorney’s office. But she knows that, armed with new knowledge, she will soon turn to work that allows her to focus on issues surrounding animals.
“I wanted to be ready,” she said as she kept a close eye on her mischievous mini dachshund, Sandy, in a conference room at the Center for Animals and Public Policy. She and her husband, Douglas Stoddart, a Framingham District Court judge, live in Natick and have two children. They share their home with another mini dachshund, Brookie, and Ms. Pellegrini competes in the show ring on her horse, affectionately called the Hobbit.
When Ms. Pellegrini redirects her career, she will join a growing band of lawyers who find themselves drawn to the burgeoning field of animal law. Since 2000, the number of accredited law schools offering courses in the field has increased from nine out of 184 schools to 80, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national nonprofit organization that advances the interests of animals through the legal system. During the same time, the number of accredited law schools with student ALDF chapters has gone from 12 to 93, with another eight chapters in the formative stages.
The growth is in part a reflection of the gulf between how the legal system treats animals and the significant roles that companion animals now play in many people’s lives, according to Pamela Alexander, director of ALDF’s Animal Law Program. Indeed, the societal shifts in that regard have been influential in forcing statutory changes across the country. Not long ago, animal cruelty was widely treated as a misdemeanor. In 1993, just seven states had felony animal abuse statutes on the books. Today, the District of Columbia and 42 states, including Massachusetts, treat animal cruelty as a major crime.
In the current culture, pets come into play in a broad range of legal circumstances – custody disputes, separation and divorce, housing discrimination and veterinary malpractice, to name a few. Nearly every area of the law is thus affected.
“If you’re a practicing attorney, sooner or later you will have a case involving a companion animal,” Ms. Alexander said.
Ms. Pellegrini’s career move comes as no surprise to Ms. Alexander. She pointed to the background of Scott A. Heiser, who is the new director of the ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program. At the end of last year, Mr. Heiser resigned as the elected district attorney of Benton County in Oregon. Frustrated over the way a judge had handled an aggravated murder case, he wanted to consider other options. He had assisted with training at the ALDF in 1998 and was thrilled when he discovered the organization had an opening.
“I couldn’t believe the timing,” Mr. Heiser, who has two dogs and three cats, said. “It was almost as if it was meant to be. I have a personal, strong passion about animal cruelty cases and seeing them prosecuted. Oregon has an aggravated animal abuse felony on its books. We filed on anything we thought we had a case on.”
Ms. Pellegrini recalled that when she was a student at Albany Law School at Union University in New York, there were no animal protection courses. The closest she came was a course on environmental law.
As a federal prosecutor, her experience with cases involving animals has been connected to a group of laws that protect the environment and endangered species. “A lot of my cases involve birds,” she noted.
She recalled one case in which a man who raised show chickens was troubled by a red-tailed hawk. Without taking any other steps to ameliorate the situation, he decided to shoot the hawk with a 9 mm handgun.
“He got the hawk, but, unfortunately for him, his neighbor was watching,” Ms. Pellegrini said.
In another case, a pheasant hunter killed an immature bald eagle and was charged with reckless disregard of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.
During her year at Cummings, Ms. Pellegrini has been fascinated by the vast array of issues connected with animals: factory farms, feral cats and animals used in research or living in shelters. The ways in which humans interact with other species are myriad and affect nearly every area of life, including the environment, public health and personal behavior, Ms. Pellegrini said. Those interactions can be complex and require careful sorting out.
“What do we do in our response to something like avian flu?” Ms. Pellegrini asked, adding: “Do we kill everything?”
And the owl that brought Ms. Pellegrini to the Center for Animals and Public Policy? Sadly, it had to be euthanized. The farmer paid a fine.