My daughter has named him Max. “Him” being a three pound ball of mixed breed fluff who was rescued from a puppy mill/hoarder when he was only two weeks old. I haven’t had a puppy since I was a child (my husband and I have always adopted adult dogs), but when my daughter pleaded with us to be allowed to foster a puppy from one of the cruelty cases I work on, we caved, and oh, how glad I am that we did! At twelve weeks old, Max is a hopping, tumbling, running and jumping bundle of joy. I bring him to the office every day where he is greeted with shouts of “Maaaaaaaax!!!” by my colleagues. The other dogs that come to our office weigh 70 lbs on average, but Max, the three-pound wonder-dog, is already ruling the roost. It’s amazing to see the effect he has on those around him, both canine and human. (In how many law offices will you see otherwise professional and serious attorneys, law clerks and support staff rolling around on the ground talking baby talk to a puppy?) My other rescue dog (Abby, the golden retriever), is still not quite sure whether having a puppy in her life is a good thing. But Abby is such a gentle soul, that I am confident she and Max will soon become the best of friends (if Max would just learn to stop jumping on her face.)
When we work on cruelty cases, whether they be criminal or civil, we focus on the legal issues, the procedural posture of the case, and the strategic possibilities. At times, we can get so wrapped up in the technical details that we almost forget the case involves living, breathing sentient beings who need and deserve our protection. Max and the other rescued dogs and cats that form our larger ALDF family are daily reminders that the work we do is not simply abstract legal work. I know that the work we do on Max’s case will have a profound impact on his life. The thought of Max going back to his abuser is horrifying to me, my family and my colleagues. The thought of his abuser being allowed to harm other animals is equally horrifying, and can not happen.
So, although Max is quite the distraction these days, he is also quite the motivator. Max and the other thousands of animals we work for each year deserve the best. OK. Enough puppy talk. I need to get back to work…..
A few years ago I saw a painting by Damien Hirst—not a darling of the animal rights set, thanks to his fondness for displaying dissected sheep and cow carcasses preserved in formaldehyde—entitled “Do you know what I like about you?” It’s a giant canvas covered with thick yellow paint and the tiny, trapped bodies of butterflies who were intentionally captured, and died, on the artwork while the gloss was still drying.
I think of this painting when considering our strange, confused, often misguided infatuation with animals. In many ways, it is their exoticness, their wildness, their non-humanness that draws us to love them—yet that is also the source of our predictable failure to protect them from our own frailties and misconceptions. Yeah, we dress up our schnauzers in Halloween costumes, we teach gorillas American Sign Language, we put rhinestone collars on panthers and pose them next to sports cars for magazine ads. But, really, isn’t so much of this fascination with animals because they are, in their essence, not like us?
When we make dogs, cats, and other companion animals part of our families, we find that they often become subject to the same perversities we inflict upon our human relatives. In our society, we’ve more or less formalized ways to deal with child abusers, wife batterers, war criminals, and garden-variety sadists. But we’re still figuring out what to do when our dysfunctions end up crushing the wild out of the animals we attempt to love or, more tragically, to control. At the Animal Legal Defense Fund, we hear such stories every day: cats doused in gasoline and lit on fire by “boys being boys,” chimpanzees having the “smiles” beaten on to their faces for Hollywood appearances, tigers kept as house pets mauling their keepers (to whose surprise?).
*This entry was excerpted from the afterword for Pet Noir: An Illustrated Anthology of Strange but True Pet Crime Stories. A portion of the proceeds from Pet Noir are donated to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
The biggest difficulty animal advocates face in helping animals get their day in court is "standing." Simply put, legal standing is a person's right or ability to sue. For a "person" under the law to have standing it must prove three things which are, again, in very simple terms: (1) that you have been "injured," (2) that the injury was caused by the action of the defendant for which you are suing, (3) and that the court has the ability to redress the injury to you with a favorable decision. But, back to that first little detail, you must be a "person."
I used the word "it" to describe a person on purpose because while most of us think of a person as an individual human, U.S. courts have granted personhood to nonhuman entities that are the subject of legal rights and duties. A few examples of such recognized "legal persons" are corporations, ships, estates, and political parties.
Animals, however, are considered "things" by the law and they are classified in every state as property, much like a desk or a chair. And, like a desk or chair, an animal cannot bring a lawsuit or have one brought for them by a person as is the case, for example, with children. That means to sue for an injury to an animal, such as one that has been injured or killed, animal advocates generally have to prove injury to a person. An example would be to sue for harm done to a human person by witnessing abuse. Sadly, without such proof of injury to "persons" the courts can, and do, simply dismiss a case without ever hearing the facts of the abuse or injury.
There are exceptions to these limitations where the law has granted animals specific legal protections, like our criminal anti-cruelty laws. But where there are not such specific protections it can be very difficult for an animal, no matter how abused, to get their day in court.
One day, hopefully, animals will have more opportunities to be represented in courts so that we can more effectively fight the many injustices they face – perhaps as another kind of recognized "legal person." In the meantime we must be resourceful and creative in bringing lawsuits to win justice for animals.
What the heck are judges thinking when they order a convicted animal abuser to serve community service at the local animal shelter? I’ll save the discussion about the use of community service as a sentencing option in violent crimes for another day and focus solely on the issue of where the community service is to be performed.
Would a competent judge order a thief to work off a community service beef at a jewelry story? Would a competent judge sentence a burglar to do community service by installing home alarm systems for ADT? Would a competent judge order a child abuser to work in a day-care center? The obvious answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “Hell no!” So, then, why is it that we see so many animal abuse cases where the trial judge orders the defendant to pay back his or her debit to society by working for the animal shelter? Sure, some of this is invited error by either a misguided prosecutor or the defense attorney looking to minimize his client’s exposure. However, the buck stops at the bench and trial judges continue to make the mistake of thinking that society and the animal abuser are both going to somehow benefit by requiring a person with a demonstrated capacity to harm animals to care for captive animals in less than tightly supervised conditions.
This is such an obvious recipe for disaster not just for the animals placed at risk but also for the animal shelter staff and board. So, next time you read a story in your local news about a similar case, fire off a letter to the editor pointing out the issue and help educate your local judges.
ALDF’s Future of Animal Law conference was held at Harvard Law School at the end of March. We had assembled many of the most brilliant, vibrant and committed minds currently working on animal legal issues (and related animal issues) and they had come together to explore cutting edge, innovative ideas.
The conference was sold out and the atmosphere was electric. We gathered in Austin Hall, one of the oldest buildings in the U.S. still being used for the teaching of law. The Ames Courtroom, on the second floor, is a large and imposing room that overwhelms the senses, with its raised wooden stage for the judges (or panelists) to speak from, its dark wood paneling throughout most of the room and windows spanning the length and height of three walls, providing an abundance of natural sunlight. High above, on the ceiling are massive wooden beams, each one, as large as a tree trunk, which, oddly enough, are carved to look like the heads of snarling wolves.
As I listened to the panelists, occasionally, I would glance up at those giant wooden beams, feeling a sense of wonder and satisfaction. I couldn’t help but feel that we had somehow brought life to those giant carvings: the wolves were in the courtroom, not simply as artwork, but as the subject of scholarly legal discussion.