When Stephanie G. got hit with a dog-custody lawsuit, she called a lawyer. “We contacted an attorney to defend her. She didn’t have a voice legally of her own. We had to speak for her,” Stephanie says.
When Casey B.’s dog died at dog daycare, she called a lawyer. “We never in our wildest dreams thought we’d ever have to hire an attorney for something related to our dog,” she says.
When Cheryl H. faced a fight over her emotional support dog, she called a lawyer. “Someone said, ‘Look around, there’s got to be someone who represents dogs,’” Cheryl says.
They were right. The number of attorneys specializing in canine cases is growing and so is animal law.
There is even an entire firm dedicated to protecting pooches and their owners: Boston Dog Lawyers, founded by attorney Jeremy Cohen. “Our motto is: It’s time to bark back,” he says.
Jeremy opened his firm in 2015. “The first six months the phone never rang,” he says. “But once it started to ring, I had to develop a staff to handle the volume.”
Canine court battles
Stephanie, Casey and Cheryl all hired Jeremy to represent them in dogged legal battles.
When Stephanie took in a family member’s dog after a disagreement about rehoming and training practices, the relative sued to get the pooch back. “I was just stunned,” she says.
The judge ruled the dog could stay with Stephanie. “To have something that’s completely out of your hands and to just wait while someone else decides the fate of this animal and your future, it was a very stressful time,” she says.
Casey says another dog killed her dog, Zuri, at daycare. She filed a lawsuit, settled, and is now pushing for more regulation.
“All we cared about was justice for Zuri and hoped that legal action makes other daycares think twice about their policies and actions,” Casey says. “We loved Zuri more than life itself.”
Cheryl needed representation when a condo association wanted to give her dog the boot.
“I need my dog, (my) emotional support animal, and I had paperwork to say such,” Cheryl says. “I was like, ‘I’m not giving up the dog. He means everything to me.’”
Cheryl says hiring an attorney who specialized in animal law helped her settle her case, get a new place and keep her dog. “We have rights. I didn’t know that,” she says.
Growth of animal law
From dogs who bite the neighbor to pet custody battles, animal-related lawsuits are now appearing in courtrooms across the country. And new breeds of attorneys are being trained to take on tough cases.
“The growth has been exponential, especially in the last decade,” says Professor Kathy Hessler, director of the Animal Law Clinic at Lewis & Clark Law School. “In 2008, we were the only animal program at a law school, and now there’s maybe a dozen in the United States.”
Experts say the expansion is also fueled by people’s immense love for their pets; owners are willing to fight for them and pay attorney’s fees.
Death row dogs
One of the gravest legal battles owners can face is having their dog end up on death row; government officials deem them dangerous and demand they be euthanized.
That’s what happened to Susan V. from Michigan. Her family dogs darted out of the yard, were accused of killing three goats and were ordered to be put down. “I was horrified,” Susan says.
She needed a good lawyer, stat. Susan hired attorney Celeste Dunn who went all CSI on the case.
“There was no blood on any of these dogs, but there was blood all over the crime scene,” Celeste says.
In an 11-hour-straight trial, Celeste brought in forensic experts, and their testimony helped prove coyotes, not dogs, killed the goats.
“We won. It was my greatest moment,” Celeste says. “With any case like that, you need somebody who’s willing to stand up for their rights under enormous pressure.”
Susan was thrilled. “We were so happy. I was bawling in the courtroom. We were all sitting on a bench just crying our eyes out,” she says.
To prevent legal disputes, some couples write up “petnups,” arranging how they’d handle dog custody if they break up.
“More couples realize this is an option as more are cohabitating, but not getting married, and pet adoptions are on the rise,” says Cristina Stella, an attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
In some states, dogs aren’t always considered mere property. If there’s a dispute, judges may look at who paid for the dog and their care but sometimes apply similar considerations as they would in child custody battles.
Related: Fighting for Your Dog in a Divorce
“We see trends in the law toward recognizing animals as members of the family,” Cristina says. “Some courts are looking at which of the two partners has a relationship with the animal, who is closer, who provides for their overall well-being and who can provide for them in a way that makes their life happy and good.”
Canine court-appointed attorneys
In 2016, Connecticut passed groundbreaking legislation that allows courts to appoint attorneys to be pro bono advocates for animals, usually dogs and cats, in abuse cases.
It’s known as “Desmond’s Law,” named after a dog, Desmond, who was brutally killed by his owner. Many Connecticut voters felt the judge in the case did not properly assess the seriousness of the crime because there was no one in court to advocate for the victim. The state’s legislature agreed. Abused animals now have a voice in legal proceedings.
Attorney Ken Bernhard has served as an advocate in four cruelty cases. After each defendant was found guilty, Ken assisted the court in assessing an appropriate sentence.
“Abuse in any form should be discouraged, criminalized and punished,” he says. “People who perpetrate cruelty are criminals. Their victims deserve to be heard, even those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Costs and finding an attorney
Many trailblazing animal attorneys love helping clients but have to pay their bills, too. Some do charge less for animal cases; others take on compelling pro bono cases. It’s litigation lawyers put their hearts into.
“No animal will die on my watch because an owner couldn’t afford a legal defense,” Celeste says. “I can’t look away from that beating heart when I know the law protects him or her. I am about justice and what is right.”
Need a lawyer?
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