Laura Hemler flinches as she’s squirted with water on her last day of class last spring. Even through the plastic of her poncho and goggles, the spraying is unpleasant. However, Dana Bottger is having a fantastic last day. She’s been enjoying frequent rewards of M&Ms throughout the class.
Guest speaker Christina Ferency — a member of the Nebraska Humane Society’s behavior department —was attempting to teach Assistant Professor Carol Knoepfler’s animal law class an important lesson about animal training theory and techniques.
Hemler, a 2016 graduate of the Creighton University School of Law, was participating in a “positive punishment” exercise, where she was squirted every time she did something wrong. Bottger, also a 2016 law graduate, received M&Ms every time she did something right and was left unpunished if she did something wrong. The lecture focused on owner abuse and neglect and how it can stems from a basic misunderstanding of how animals think and learn.
“I hope the students learned the power of positive reinforcement when it comes to training animals, with an understanding that punishment deters learning,” Knoepfler says. “I hope they saw the connection between how if people don’t understand how animals learn, then that lack of an understanding can sometimes lead to animal neglect or even abuse.”
Knoepfler, who volunteers at the Nebraska Humane Society and has placed over a dozen animals with various law faculty and staff, addresses all legal issues that affect domestic, commercial and wild animals in her course. These issues include animal cruelty, animals as property, estate issues involving animals, animals raised for food, animals in entertainment, animals used for research and federal issues regarding animals.
Interest in animal law has risen dramatically over the last several years, from only nine law schools having an animal law class in 2000 to 151 law schools in 2015, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Knoepfler first brought the class to Creighton in 2013 and, based on student demand, taught it again in the spring 2016 semester.
According to Knoepfler, people increasingly view their pets as family members. “At the end of 2011, 63 percent of people surveyed felt their pets were family members,” Knoepfler says. “Those same people are going to their lawyers with more legal issues involving their pets, such as negligent veterinary and grooming care, estate planning involving pets and pet custody disputes in divorces. So it’s not at all unusual for an animal law question to pop up in an attorney’s every day practice. These matters are in addition to the animal abuse/animal neglect matters that arise in the criminal law realm.”
The formation of student animal law groups is also on the rise. Creighton’s Animal Law Society (ALS) is a chapter of the national organization, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund, whose mission is “to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.” Knoepfler acts as an advisor for this organization, which was founded in 2013 by Rebekah Mangrum, JD’14, who is now a deputy county attorney (domestic violence) in the Douglas County (Neb.) Attorney’s Office.
“Seeing a connection between domestic abuse and animal abuse, Becca charges and requests sentencing on related animal abuse matters where there is violence against animals in addition to violence against partners,” Knoepfler says.
Knoepfler notes that ALS has sponsored a variety of on-campus activities, including bringing dogs to the law school for final-exam stress relief, collecting donations for the Nebraska Humane Society, and hosting speakers and webinars on investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty issues.
“This past spring, Laura Delgado, the president of ALS, attended the 2016 National Animal Law competitions and participated in the closing argument competition. Out of 10 competitors, she placed second,” says Knoepfler.
Students are motivated to take animal law courses based on their own interest in animals. As for Knoepfler, she is motivated to teach the class based on her passion for animals, which is what got her into the legal profession in the first place. “There is always something new to learn within the field of animal law.”
“Christina Ferency’s presentation made me think about teaching and how we can incorporate positive reinforcement in teaching methods,” Knoepfler says.
Part of Ferency’s presentation demonstrated how “punishment” effectively paralyzed or shut down the student, who decided not to move or make any choice, to avoid the “punishment” for making a wrong choice.
“When we asked Laura how she felt after being squirted with water every time she did something wrong, she said ‘frustrated,’” Knoepfler recalls. “This made me think about grading and commenting on papers. I realized that as a professor I need to make it as positive an experience as I can for my students, and to encourage them to continue to try and keep learning.”