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Animals may get legal counsel in Connecticut

HARTFORD — Man’s best friend is lawyering up.

Although animal cruelty laws have been on the books for over a century in some states, only recently has the idea of legal representation for animals started to be taken seriously. The most high-profile instance was the guardian-special master appointed in 2007 to represent the interests of 48 dogs in the Michael Vick dogfighting case.

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And the practice seems to be catching on. The Connecticut legislature is considering introducing the notion of animal advocates to its court system after Rhode Island made a similar move last year. State lawmakers have discussed making them available in pet custody disputes as well as in animal abuse cases.

That prospect has animal rights supporters across the country optimistic that the practice could catch on. They say it reflects not only an attempt to reduce animals’ suffering but also a growing recognition that humans’ welfare is intimately linked to that of animals. But lawyers and even some veterinarians question the wisdom of starting down what they call a ‘‘slippery slope.’’

David Favre, a law professor at the University of Michigan, says it is almost always at the judge’s discretion about whether to consider how a ruling affects involved animals. Appointing an advocate would create a regular system for incorporating their interests into court proceedings.

‘‘It’s not saying that the animal is a legal person,’’ Favre said. ‘‘It’s saying that the animal has interests independent of the owner, and that these interests should be taken into account.”

The bill introduced by Representative Diana Urban, a Democrat from North Stonington, originally called for animal advocates in custody disputes as well as in criminal abuse proceedings. Its scope was later limited to abuse cases.

Urban points to a link between cruelty to animals and violence towards humans, calling animal abuse an early indicator of mental illness and propensity to commit mass violence.

‘‘This bill is not so much about animal cruelty as it is about what animal cruelty means,’’ she said. ‘‘And it means that you have a proclivity for future violence. It’s a red flag.’’

The proposal has support from legislators seeking early warning signs about people who might commit acts of mass violence. The bill passed a major legislative hurdle last week and may come before the full legislature in this session.

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