Pet Cause: More Lawyers Training in Field of Animal Law

April 1, 2008

Fido is getting a new name — several, in fact: “plaintiff,” “trustee,” “beneficiary” and even “defendant.”

Dogs, cats and creatures of all sorts are being redefined in an emerging area of legal practice known as animal law. Once considered mere property, animals are being invested with legal standing as they’re increasingly being named as partial beneficiaries of estates, subjects of lawsuits and victims of abuse.

As animals rise in the law, so does the profile of animal lawyers, or lawyers who practice animal law.

Ninety-two of the 196 law schools in the country approved by the American Bar Association now offer courses on animal law, up from the nine that offered classes in 2000, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

“You’re seeing this real snowball effect,” said Pamela Alexander, director of the defense fund’s animal law section.

Part of the push has come from animals’ rise in prominence in people’s lives, with owners routinely spending thousands of dollars to give a cat chemotherapy and sending dogs to day care, therapists and groomers.

High Point publisher Randall B. Terry Jr., whose name will adorn N.C. State University’s new veterinary hospital, left an estimated $1 million to ensure that his six golden retrievers would be cared for after he died in 2004. After her death last year, New York hotel queen Leona Helmsley left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble.

A number of top law schools, including those at Duke, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Northwestern universities, bolstered their animal law offerings after each received $1 million from a foundation set up by Bob Barker, former “The Price Is Right” host and animal philanthropist superstar.

North Carolina is warmly regarded by animal rights activists. They point to a state statute that allows people to bequeath money to pets and clears the path for lawsuits against animal abusers.

Lawyer Calley Gerber is among North Carolina’s pioneers in representing four-legged clients. She gave up a job as a corporate lawyer to start a practice dedicated to animals with no idea whether she’ll be able to eke out a living.

She switched after deciding she had made the best use of her law degree when she spent five years as an animal cruelty prosecutor in Colorado.

“Everyone says you can’t make a living doing it,” Gerber said. “But I decided, well, I’m going to try.”

As the awareness of animal law grows, practitioners like Gerber are finding more need for their expertise. Lawyers address legal issues such as what happens to pets that are abandoned, involved in divorce custody disputes or left behind after an owner dies.

Animal law disputes still take place in largely uncharted legal territory and revolve around questions about the inherent rights of animals, said William Reppy Jr., a Duke law professor.

Reppy, who started Duke’s animal law clinic, said the newness of animal law is inviting to activists who see a chance to define new rights, as the areas of civil rights and environmental law have become more established and settled.

“Here’s an area where it’s still bad,” Reppy said. “People with an activist mentality can see there’s room to do something.”

At Duke, an animal clinic puts law students to work on animal-related issues, from cruelty to the drafting of animal control ordinances, Reppy said.

But the increased training has outpaced job creation in animal law.

Reppy said many of his students are taking conventional jobs in law firms and offering their expertise when animal issues come their way, or they’re doing pro bono work for local humane societies and shelters.

North Carolina has landed in the national animal-rights spotlight with two recent hoarding cases that leaned on an unusual state law that allows anyone to sue an animal abuser.

A Sanford couple had 300 animals found in filthy cages in 2005, thought to be the largest animal-hoarding case in the country. The other concerned Janie Conyers, a Raleigh poodle breeder who had more than 100 dogs and birds that were seized last fall because of negligence.

In Conyers’ case, Animal Legal Defense Fund attorneys from the West Coast flew in, took the lead from the county to sue Conyers and brokered an agreement that prevents her from owning animals.

Abuse and cruelty cases are the most common in animal law, but Reppy said animal law will diversify as courts are asked to consider what to do when pets and their owners come into contact with the law.

Terry, the High Point publisher, set up a trust, worth about $1 million, for his six golden retrievers, and arranged for caretaker Robin Groban to live in his house and care for them until the end of their lives, Groban said.

Groban meets with a lot of skepticism when she tells people that Terry, who also donated $20 million to build a new veterinary hospital at N.C State, set up the trust for the dogs, of which three remain living.

But the dogs were family to Terry, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You know that they’re being taken care of, they’re not being farmed out,” Groban said. “You would not want to separate them.”

In North Carolina, the law generally sees pets as property, but that idea is slowly changing, said Lee Rosen, a Raleigh divorce attorney. Rosen has seen judges start to address pets in the same manner as children in custody disputes.

Rosen tells clients to make sure they’re the ones who take the animals to vet appointments and groomers if they’re going to fight for custody of a pet.

“You want your name to be on those documents,” he said.

He and lawyers in his office sometimes wonder whether couples fight over pets just for the sake of fighting.

“They say they want the cat, but they’re going to use the pet as a negotiating lever,” he said.

In one case, a pet sparked a divorce when a man became frustrated at his wife’s insistence that their Saint Bernard share their bed, Rosen said. He told her it was him or the dog.

She chose the dog.

Janice Sitzes, an assistant director of marketing for N.C. State University’s Office of Professional Development, underwent a protracted custody battle when she and her husband separated in 2001 and both wanted custody of their golden retrievers, Amber and Caribe.

Sitzes and her ex-husband had to provide proof of a suitable living environment, and they had to ask friends and family to write affidavits testifying as to the quality of his or her dog parenting. Sitzes’ attorney argued that Caribe was a gift to her before the marriage and thus not a marital asset.

“That was probably the nasty part of the divorce,” Sitzes said. “We didn’t have any two-legged children.”

A judge decided to give one dog to each. Caribe died in December from cancer, giving Sitzes several years with her companion that she wouldn’t have otherwise had.

“I would do it all over again,” she said. “It’s just money.”

Source: The News & Observer of Raleigh

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