Mitzi Bolanos ’08 discusses her career in Animal Law

Alumna Mitzi Bolanos ’08 discusses her LL.M. in Animal Law and fight against breed-specific legislation

Mitzi Bolanos graduated FIU Law in 2008 and decided to pursue her passion for animals in her fight against breed-specific legislation.  She recently completed an LL.M. in Animal Law from Lewis & Clark Law School.  We caught up with her to discuss her journey.

What sparked your interest in Animal Law?

When I was in law school, animal law was still not yet offered in most schools and Student Animal Legal Defense Fund organizations were also not yet common.  It wasn’t until several years after law school that I began to explore animal law.  Growing up in Miami-Dade County, I was familiar with breed discriminatory legislation, but was unaware of what these laws really meant for families or how much these laws actually hurt a community.  It wasn’t until I moved to Washington, D.C. and later to New Orleans, LA that I began volunteering at animal shelters and finally encountered my first pit bull type dogs.  At that point, I was able to make my own assessment, and found these dogs to be some of the most loving and gentle creatures I had ever encountered.  After adopting a pit bull type dog in New Orleans, I knew I wouldn’t stop until breed discrimination was a thing of the past.  During this same time, I was also reading and studying on why these dogs had been singled out and the true causes of dog bites.  I was learning about the types of laws that keep communities safe, are cost-efficient, and do not discriminate against responsible owners of loving family dogs.  Once Lewis & Clark’s Animal Law LL.M. program became official in 2012, I knew it was exactly where I needed to go.

How different is pursuing an LL.M. from pursuing a J.D?

Being immersed in a single and focused area of law for an entire year is very different from the years spent pursuing a J.D., particularly when that area of law is one that you are passionate about.  Having only 7 students in the Animal Law LL.M. program, our seminars were personalized and often resulted in deep discussions.  Each of us having unique practical experience, we each offered a slightly different perspective and were able to learn a lot from each other.  Taking 26 credits of animal law related courses, many of which are seminar style, you begin to think about and question things you never thought of previously.  It’s not just a substantive legal experience, but a constant exercise in critical, as well as creative, thinking. Though case law in important in animal law, and we do have plenty, I think there is less time spent on the case law aspect of law school and more time spent on thinking about how we can learn from these cases and how a new angle might lead to a better outcome.  There is also a focus on how we can improve our animal laws and how we can help getting others involved in this endeavor.

What do you plan to do moving forward?

My main focus is to promote legislation that protects animals and people, keeping our communities safe and our animals healthy and well cared for.  I just started a new position as Assistant Executive Director of StubbyDog (www.stubbydog.org), a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to reforming society’s perception of pit bull type dogs as gentle and loving family pets.  To accomplish this, we use media, education, and outreach.  We also work to end breed discrimination by local governments or private companies (particularly in the housing and insurance industries) and promote breed-neutral laws that focus on the real issues affecting safety, such as reducing or eliminating chaining of dogs, proper socialization and veterinary care, and proper supervision.

How did your experience at FIU Law prepare you for your career?

The fundamental skills offered at FIU go beyond the practice of law in the traditional sense.  Every decision, whether legal or not, is guided by the principles of critical thinking that I learned at FIU.  The ability to think through a problem, map out a plan, and then execute it was thoroughly taught at our law school.  I particularly remember Professor Fingerhut’s trial preparation courses.  Those lessons can be applied to a variety of situations beyond an actual legal trial.

What advice do you have for students interested in a similar career path?

I think the most important piece of advice that I can give a student interested in animal law is simply to get involved.  Become a student member of your local Bar Association’s Animal Law Committee and the ABA TIPS Animal Law Committee, attend CLEs that cover animal law topics (usually free or discounted for students), take on a leadership position in your Student Animal Legal Defense Fund chapter, attend an animal law conference, and any other event where you can get out and meet animal law practitioners.  Animal law is a growing field, but it is still a relatively small community.  Get to know this community. Also, spend your summers volunteering or interning at an organization that you believe in, even if the organization does not do much legal work.  Every organization needs an attorney on their side, and that could be you!  Start building these relationships and networks as early as possible.

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