Once Neglected, Now Protected – ALDF Wins Historic Ruling for Abused Animals

Posted on April 19, 2007

Eleven neglected cats have been permanently rescued from horrific living conditions, thanks to the hard work of an Oregon attorney and some legal maneuvering by the Animal Legal Defense Fund.  

In awarding full custody of the cats to the Oregon non-profit group Cat Champion Corporation, the Oregon Court of Appeals became the first court in the U.S. ever to state that a fiduciary can be appointed on behalf of an animal owner to determine what is in the best interest of her and her pets and to grant a limited protective order allowing an animal protection organization to be the fiduciary making that determination. Normally a term used in banking, a fiduciary is a person or organization granted the authority to look after the assets of someone else, helping to manage their affairs, similar to a trustee. Here the order was limited to the disposition of a single asset: the cats.

The landmark case began three years ago when the Linn County Sheriff’s Department arrived at the trailer of Jean Marie Primrose to investigate a veterinarian’s report of animal neglect. Deputies found the malnourished cats living amid filthy surroundings, missing patches of fur, and suffering from upper-respiratory infections and untreated skin and eye diseases. The interior of the trailer was so soiled with urine and fecal waste that the deputies had difficulty breathing and could only remain inside for short periods. They seized 11 felines and relinquished custody of the animals to Cat Champion Corporation, an organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of cats. Another eight or nine cats ran off and could not be rescued.

Primrose was charged with misdemeanor animal neglect, but the trial court dismissed those charges in January 2005 after a psychological evaluation concluded that she was unable to assist in her own defense. Since Primrose was not convicted of a crime for mistreating the cats, the animals were not forfeited to anyone else, and Primrose remained their lawful owner.  

Concerned for the animals’ welfare, Cat Champion contacted ALDF, which immediately began researching the legal theories that might help Cat Champion win custody of the cats.  After exploring a number of options, Dana Campbell, an ALDF attorney, realized that winning this case was going to take some creative legal thinking.

“We had won a similar case in another Oregon county by using this catchall statute in Oregon that basically said in any other case or matter where someone needs help managing their assets that doesn’t fall under these other categories, you can set up a fiduciary relationship,” explains Dana. “We thought we could make Cat Champion a fiduciary that has these powers that could include taking care of these assets, which are the cats, on behalf of this woman, since she can’t manage them herself.”

Although ALDF lost the first round in the Linn County Probate Court, Dana decided to appeal the verdict, since ALDF had won a similar case in Oregon and believed a favorable ruling was still possible. “We had a difference of opinion,” says Dana. “Two cases in two different counties with different decisions-these are the cases appellate courts like to hear.”

Handling the appeal of the lower court decision was Oregon attorney Margaret Leiberan, who worked on this case for ALDF for almost no pay.

In late December of 2006, the Oregon Court of Appeals overturned the earlier probate court ruling, granting custody of the felines to Cat Champion. “In denying Cat Champion’s petition,” reads the new court ruling, “the trial court was hesitant to permanently divest Primrose of her cats…. While we agree with the court that it has a duty to protect Primrose’s property, in some situations, such as here, protecting property means more than just holding the property for safekeeping. Each day that the cats remain in Cat Champion’s care the expenses incurred in caring for them increase, and thus the debt owed by Primrose also increases. The end result is that Cat Champion seeks to protect Primrose’s interests as well as its own.”

Now cats like Possum, Jerry, Pearl, Larry, and Amy – all of whom were found to be suffering from dehydration, urine burns, and infections-are happy, relaxed, and learning what it means to have loving homes.  

These tragic hoarding cases are all too common, but thanks to the dedication of attorneys like Margaret and the authorities who rescued Primrose’s neglected cats in the first place-not to mention the support of the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s generous members, who make all of ALDF’s work on such cases possible-this story shows how the law can give new life to animals like these precious rescued felines.