CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Fairfield High School alumna Boanne Wassink is a student at Harvard Law School, where she is a member of a new group dedicated to litigating for animal welfare.
In fact, Wassink helped prepare a complaint in recent litigation about primates used in research. Wassink said it was a great experience, and she hopes to work as a litigator on behalf of animals after she graduates from Harvard.
Fairfield residents may remember Wassink by her maiden name, Boanne MacGregor, daughter of Douglas MacGregor and Susanna McCan. Boanne graduated from Fairfield High School in 2008, then went to Grinnell College, double majoring in mathematics and physics. Wassink dreamed of becoming an illustrious research mathematician. She enrolled at the University of Iowa to get a master’s degree in mathematics, but during her first month of classes, she was diagnosed with cancer.
“It shook up my life,” she said. “That was not how I expected to spend that time at all.”
Wassink went through six months of chemotherapy. The treatment was a success, and Boanne was able to resume her studies. But that scare with death made her rethink her career path. She had what she called an “existential crisis,” wondering whether she loved math enough to devote her life to it. Ultimately, she decided that what she really wanted was to make the world a better place. That led her to law school.
“I thought that would be a way to use my math skills and analytical reasoning I enjoy to help people,” she said.
Wassink took a few years off from school to care for her daughter, now 2.5 years old, and to fully recover from cancer. She then began studying for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). She put a lot of hard work into it, and earned a high score, so high that she was accepted at one of the most prestigious law schools in the country, Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“It’s kind of hard to say no to Harvard,” she said.
Boanne has always been interested in animal rights. She’s been a vegetarian her whole life, not wanting to kill or harm animals any more than necessary. During her first year at Harvard, she attended talks given by the Animal Law Society, a student organization dedicated to using the legal system to advance the interests of non-human animals.
“I found that this field matches exactly what I’m interested in,” Wassink said. “Harvard has a really strong animal law program, one of the few law schools in the country to have one. I decided that I wanted to do that for a career, that I wanted to specialize in that kind of law.”
Fortunately for Wassink, she didn’t have to wait till graduation to help animals in the courtroom. Earlier this year in her third and final year of law school, Harvard launched the Animal Law and Policy Clinic. The clinic is an opportunity for law students to get experience with the legal system while they’re still in school. It could not have been better timing for Wassink, who was looking for a clinic to work in.
Wassink got to work on the clinic’s very first case, a suit against the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2014, a series of plaintiffs petitioned the USDA to adopt standards for the care of primates used in federally funded research experiments. The plaintiffs were animal rights groups such as the New England Anti-Vivisection Society, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, and the International Primate Protection League. They asked the USDA to adopt standards of care that would allow primates to be housed in social groups with access to the outdoors, opportunities to forage for food, climb, build nests and make choices about their activities.
The current standards for primate care are vague, Wassink said, which is why the plaintiffs wanted the USDA to adopt the clear language used by other organizations such as the National Institutes of Health. Wassink said the USDA is in an interesting spot because while on the one hand it’s responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act, it’s also tasked with promoting agriculture and livestock production. Wassink feels that, in practice, the agency is hesitant to enforce laws on animal welfare because it does not want to burden the industry.
When the plaintiffs petitioned the USDA to adopt the clear rules on primate research, the petition generated about 10,000 comments. Wassink said the vast majority were from people in support of the higher standards.
In a news release about the case, Wassink remarked, “Right now, over 100,000 primates are confined in laboratories across the United States. That’s 10 times the number of people in my hometown of Fairfield. Many of those primates endure truly gruesome experiments. The USDA is responsible for making sure the animals get basic care and comfort, but it’s dragging its feet. We are suing to make the USDA do its job.”
Wassink hoped the public pressure from the comments would nudge the USDA to adopt the higher standards, but five years went by and the USDA had not responded to the petition. That’s when the Animal Law and Policy Clinic came in. In November, the clinic sued the USDA for failing to respond to the petition in a reasonable amount of time. Wassink and fellow student Brett Richey prepared the complaint for the plaintiffs under the supervision of the clinic’s director Katherine Meyer, a nationally renowned animal law expert. While the case was making its way through the court, the USDA responded to the petition, denying the plaintiffs’ request.
Wassink said she was disappointed in the result. She’s not sure what will become of the case now that the USDA has responded, but she’s discussing options with her colleagues at the clinic.
“This process has taught me that making change will not happen overnight,” Wassink said. “We’ve just got to keep going.”
Boanne said she learned a lot about animal experimentation through her work on the case. She said lab environments are extremely stressful to primates. They can develop pathological behaviors such as biting themselves, banging themselves against the cage, over-grooming to the point of permanent damage to their skin, and other forms of self-mutilation.
Researchers have shifted away from using chimpanzees in experiments because they are considered more cognitively advanced than other primates such as rhesus macaque monkeys and baboons. Wassink said those other primate still exhibit the same destructive behaviors when they are isolated from their peers. The U.S. Congress attempted to address these problems when it amended the Animal Welfare Act in 1985.
What does the future hold for Boanne? She will do a two-year clerkship working for a judge, and then she plans to pursue a career as an attorney litigating on behalf of animals.