Justice to the MaxJune 26th, 2009
If every march for social justice has its landmarks, the case of Max the cat is surely a milestone for animal rights. Thanks to a tireless prosecutor, an aggressive judge, and some help from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Max is not only safe, but his ordeal has led to a pioneering court ruling that may set a precedent for future cases involving companion animals.
Last January, Dustin Teahon of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, assaulted his girlfriend and kicked her cat Max down a flight of stairs. Max sustained possible neurological trauma, and the girlfriend ended her relationship with Teahon. The woman even obtained a protection order barring Teahon from contacting her and revealed that he had also abused another of her animals, a 10-week-old kitten named Diddy, who died a day after Teahon struck him in the head. As in many domestic-violence cases, the couple later reconciled. But this time authorities recognized that allowing Max to remain with his guardian would place him in danger—so the court placed him in a local shelter, not even permitting the woman’s parents to adopt him.
As Tiffany Wasserburger, chief deputy of the Family Law Division for Scotts Bluff County, was working on the criminal case against Teahon, she was faced with another challenge: the defendant’s girlfriend wanted Max returned. Teahon pleaded no contest to third-degree domestic assault and two counts of animal cruelty, and the trial court banned him from possessing animals. Wasserburger had informed the court that considering the possession ban applicable to the defendant, and that he and his girlfriend were again living together, the state would oppose any attempt to release Max back to the victim (the girlfriend). The court said it probably didn’t have jurisdiction over the victim, adding that it likely would be forced to overrule the state’s objection. Nevertheless, the trial judge gave Wasserburger a chance to research the issue and substantiate her position.
“The judge told me I needed to be ready with case law or statutory authority giving him the authority to terminate the victim’s ownership rights,” says Wasserburger, who immediately emailed Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program, which assists prosecutors throughout the country with difficult animal-abuse cases. “Scott was great,” she says. “He called me with suggestions and then over the next several days emailed me tons of resource information, case law, and arguments to support our position that regardless of ownership, the deciding factor in this case was Max’s best interest.”
Judge James Worden sentenced Teahon to a total of 22 months: nine months for domestic assault, five months each for two counts of animal cruelty, and three months for violating a protection order. “I appreciate that the judge recognized the correlation between animal abuse and domestic abuse,” says Wasserburger. “He even described Mr. Teahon as ‘holding the animals hostage’ in an attempt to hurt the victim. He received a separate sentence for each victim, which I think honors each of them and recognizes that these animals also suffered at the hands of Mr. Teahon. I consider this sentence a big step in our efforts to protect both women and animals.” She also reports that Max has been adopted into a loving home.
“The issue of ensuring a safe outcome for animals trapped in the highly dysfunctional cycle of domestic violence is sadly an all too common one,” says Heiser. “Unlike many companion animals, Max the kitten had a good outcome, thanks to the excellent work of a highly skilled and motivated prosecutor. It warms my heart to have helped play a role in this case, and I am delighted that the trial judge adopted our reasoning on the issue.”
“I can’t even express how much Scott’s assistance through ALDF helped me in this case,” adds Wasserburger. “He was always available for questions, even when he was out of the state for training. He pointed me in the right direction for research and legal authority and helped me develop several alternative arguments so the judge had several grounds on which to rest his decision. He was very encouraging and obviously well-informed on the multiple issues raised in this case. I am so grateful that we were able to save Max’s life. If he had been returned to his original home, odds are that he would not be alive today.”