Newsletter - Animal Writes sm
From  Issue
9 June 2002
Pets Have Rights, Too

By Sarah Duran - [email protected]
The News Tribune 

Cheryl Shute didn't know what to do after animal control took her dog, Kenny, because he bit a delivery man at her Bremerton home last February.

Shute's primary worry was that her 3-year-old bull mastiff-golden labrador mix would be put to death. After a few frantic weeks trying to free him from the pound, Shute called Seattle lawyer Adam Karp.

Within a week, Kenny was off doggie death row. "I couldn't have done it without him," Shute said. "They (animal control) wouldn't even listen to me."

Vicious-dog ordinances are just one way laws affect animals. Courts increasingly are dealing with animal-related issues, ranging from landlord-tenant disputes and custody battles to veterinarian malpractice and negligence.

Recognizing the trend, the Washington State Bar Association recently became the fourth bar to create a section for lawyers interested in animal law. Earlier efforts were in Texas, Michigan and the District of Columbia.

The new section gives them a forum for discussing issues and educating the public on animal rights, said Karp, who led efforts to create the section.

Ideally, attorneys with different philosophies will join, including those who represent veterinarians and agribusiness, Karp said. So far 85 lawyers have said they plan to join.

Five other states are looking at creating animal-law sections, said Stephen Wells, director of the law professional volunteer program for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Petaluma, Calif.

Wells credits animal protection groups with focusing the public's attention on animal rights. High-profile abuse cases, such as the California man who killed a dog two years ago by throwing it into traffic, also raise awareness.

Even criminal cases, such as the second-degree murder conviction earlier this year of a San Francisco woman after her two dogs killed a neighbor, can educate the public.

"I really think animal law is something that's come of age," Wells said.

As a result, some law schools have begun offering animal-law classes, although none in Washington currently offers such courses. There's even a journal dedicated to animal-law issues, Animal Law, published by the Northwestern School of Law of Lewis & Clark College in Portland.

Animals intersect with the law in many ways. Cruelty and dog bite cases are among the most common, local attorneys say. Other cases include:
* Protecting the rights of people who use service dogs.
* Resolving billing disputes with businesses that board animals. In the worst-case scenario, the operator may threaten to euthanize or sell the animal unless the bill is paid.
* Suing veterinarians for malpractice.
* Establishing trust funds for pets in case their owners die.
* Defending owners from civil suits after their animals attack.

Attorneys who take animal cases say the biggest problem with the law is that it views animals as property. That ignores the emotional attachment people have to their animals, they say.

As a result, insurance companies, some lawyers and others consider only replacement value when compensating someone for pets that are injured or killed.

"They're more than just property," said Tacoma attorney Elizabeth Powell, whose clients have included owners of dogs and horses. "They're not a book or a chair."

Karp, who refers to owners as "guardians," goes even further. He believes animals themselves should be able to sue.

"That's going to sound crazy," he said. "But in animal-cruelty cases, why shouldn't there be some sort of penalty or punishment, some acknowledgement the dog can seek compensation, in addition to the impact on his guardians?"

These lawyers consider themselves animal lovers who take the cases to right a wrong or to push the courts into recognizing animal rights. The cases rarely are money-makers; they say it's not unusual for the lawyers to work for free.

"You have to do a lot of it on a discounted basis because people that usually have these kinds of cases aren't wealthy and they don't have insurance," said Gig Harbor lawyer G. Paul Mabrey, who worked 22 years as a veterinarian before entering the law profession five years ago.

"You've got to do it because you love it. It's a labor of love," said Mabrey, who is particularly interested in cases involving horse contracts and registries.

Shute, the Bremerton owner of Kenny, said going to Karp was well worth the $85 she spent in attorney's fees. Hiring someone familiar with animal rights helped get Kenny out quickly because the lawyer knew what to do.

Kenny had never bitten anyone before, Shute said. He attacked only after it appeared the delivery man was about to hit her with a clipboard. Karp suggested she collect written testimonials to Kenny's prior good behavior, including letters from delivery people.

His advice paid off and she was able to free Kenny.

"If it wasn't for Adam, I would never have gotten him back," Shute said.

Go on to Protest Cat Killing Law in Akron
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