Animal Law is a Growing Field Because of Conflict Between Humans & Non-Humans

Animals occupy a unique place in the law. For the most part, they’re considered property. Your cat? He’s not much different than your couch. That elephant? Might as well be a microwave. At the same time, however, the law recognizes that Fido is not the same as a Frigidaire. Animal cruelty is illegal in all fifty states, and egregious animal abuse is a felony.

In Colorado, you can set up a trust to pay for the care of your companion animal (the word “pet” is falling out of favor) after you die. And if your dog dies before you do and it’s someone else’s fault, you can sue and collect far more than the $100 you paid to adopt her at the pound. Recent settlements have been in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Those advancements are due in large part to animal lawyers, who make their living in the legal space between things and people. They’re passionate about protecting animals and elevating their inferior status, and they’re gaining ground. The field of animal law is becoming more mainstream. More than 150 law schools in the United States and Canada now teach at least one animal-law class, up from just a handful of schools in 2000. The American Bar Association created an Animal Law Committee in 2004 to help lawyers nationwide network and learn from each other. The Colorado Bar Association did the same for local attorneys in 2013.

The University of Denver recently announced that it’s taking a leading role in training the next generation of animal lawyers: Starting this fall, DU Sturm College of Law professor Justin Marceau will begin teaching a series of classes on the subject of animal law.

The dedicated animal-law professorship is the first of its kind in the country, and it’s being funded by the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a California-based nonprofit that has been advocating for the growth and legitimacy of animal law for more than thirty years.

ALDF executive director Stephen Wells likens the trajectory of animal law to that of environmental law, which was once considered novel but is now well established. “It starts out as something causing people to raise an eyebrow,” he says, then becomes something that is taken seriously. “I see DU getting into a rapidly growing field of law as a leader and offering something that very few law schools now do.”

The interest level among students, Wells adds, “is off the charts.”

"A lot of this is a labor of love."

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But that doesn’t mean there’s fierce competition among legal firms to represent Fido’s interests — at least not yet. Lawyers who focus solely on animal issues are still few and far between. Jennifer Edwards of the aptly named Animal Law Center in Englewood is one of them. Since 2006, she has taken cases involving a variety of creatures big and small, including dogs and cats, pigs and horses, snakes and birds, lions, tigers and bears, a pack of wolves and a pond full of bluegill.

One of the questions she hears most often is, “What is animal law?”

“Think of every kind of area of the law, just related to animals,” she says. It could be an ex-couple in a custody dispute over a beloved dog. Or an owner charged with animal cruelty for having too many cats. Animal cases can be big or small, and they can occur in every type of jurisdiction. Edwards has sued Safeway and Petco in federal court for selling tainted pet food. She’s also taken on Commerce City officials on behalf of Hammy, a potbellied pig whose owners were ticketed because he grew too big for the city’s seventy-pound weight limit.

Edwards jokes that she won’t strike it rich this way. But as the mother of two young children who is expecting her third, she sees her work as an important contribution toward the goal of elevating the status of clients like Hammy, who slept in his owners’ bed, from pets that are owned to sentient beings that can be considered members of the family. Her own family currently includes one dog, two cats, four horses and a couple tanks of fish.

“A lot of this is a labor of love,” she says.

Edwards grew up in Forest Hill, Maryland, about 35 miles northeast of Baltimore, on what she calls a “gentleman’s farm.” She always had an affinity for animals. Her menagerie included cows, chickens, turkeys, pheasants, ducks, groundhogs, squirrels, baby birds that fell out of trees, and a goat she once pulled out of a creek.

“I was always rescuing things,” she says. “I always knew I was going to do something with animals.” She studied biology and chemistry in college, thinking that she would go to veterinary school. But after working in some vets’ offices, she changed her mind. “The advocacy piece seemed to be missing,” she says. “I felt like, ‘Gosh, I don’t think this is the fit for me.’”

A friend suggested she’d make a good lawyer, and Edwards decided to apply to law school. She enrolled at the University of Baltimore School of Law but did her final semester in 2006 at DU as a visiting student. Part of the attraction for Edwards was that DU had an animal-law class, which wasn’t offered in Baltimore. The class fascinated her, but it was actually a lecture in her trusts-and-estates class that got her thinking she could make a career out of it.

“I was always kind of the back row-er; I was never the front-of-the-classroom eager beaver,” Edwards explains. “But the day that we did pet trusts, I was the over-participator.” After class, she approached the professor and asked if he thought she could make a living as an animal lawyer. “He said, ‘If anybody could, you can,’” she recalls. “I took that as a compliment.”

After graduation, Edwards hung out her shingle. Unlike the lawyers who take an occasional animal case or two, she decided that she’d devote her entire practice to them. One of her first was an animal-cruelty case. A couple was charged with cruelty for keeping their Labrador on a choke chain in the yard. The dog was not neutered and was very hyperactive, and he pulled on the choke chain so much that his collar had worn a deep groove in his neck.

Edwards didn’t shy away from the case because it involved defending accused animal abusers. But she did demand that the owners abide by a set of conditions. “I said, ‘Okay, I will help you,’” she recalls, “‘but this dog will be neutered. You’re going to get some training for him. And you’re going to start integrating him with your family.’”

The couple followed her instructions, Edwards says, and the animal-cruelty charge was eventually dismissed. “It felt really good afterward, because they called me and said, ‘Thank you so much. We got this dog — we knew we wanted a dog, but we didn’t know they could be integrated so much into your family, and he’s become part of the family.’”

That case is a good example of Edwards’s philosophy. She doesn’t consider herself an animal-rights attorney, nor does she align herself with the activists who throw red paint on fur coats. Instead, she takes a middle-of-the-road approach: She’s interested in all cases involving animals, whether it’s advocating for better treatment for them or defending someone accused of treating them badly. The way she sees it, an animal lawyer is more likely to care about getting a good result for the animals in addition to getting a good result for the client who’s paying the bill.

“I don’t think about it as, ‘Oh, my God, it’s cruelty — I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole,’” she says. “It’s, ‘Wait a minute. How can I help this person and, especially, help the animals?’”

Edwards’s firm consists of her and attorney Jay Swearingen, who spent decades working in education law, representing school boards and school districts. Swearingen loves dogs, especially German shepherds, which he trains for an obedience-and-skill sport known as schutzhund. After he retired from education law, Swearingen read an article about the Animal Law Center and was intrigued. Despite knowing “zip” about animal law, he began volunteering there and was eventually hired on. He now works out of the firm’s modest office in an Englewood high-rise, which is decorated with animal photos and news clippings from high-profile cases.

Some of the firm’s most memorable cases include:

The case of Ava, the dog who was shot by the police. In May 2011, Brittany Moore of Erie called the police because she received a threatening phone call from her boyfriend’s ex-wife. An Erie officer responded, but instead of showing up to the house where Moore lived with her three young daughters and two dogs, Ava and Ivy, he knocked on her neighbor’s door instead. When the officer realized his mistake, he began walking toward Moore’s house.

Ava and Ivy were in the yard. According to the lawsuit that Edwards eventually filed on Moore’s behalf, Ava, a German shepherd, was chewing on a rawhide bone. When the dogs caught sight of the officer, they got up and began walking toward him. Moore and a neighbor say the dogs were calm and showed no signs of aggression, but the officer reported that Ava was growling and showing her teeth, and the hair on the back of her neck was standing up.

The officer began backing up into the neighbor’s driveway, and he un-holstered his gun. Moore yelled “Ava, nein!” the German command to stop. The lawsuit claimed that the dog obeyed the command, with the rawhide still in her mouth. But the officer gave a different story: He claimed that Ava crouched down and then lunged at him. He fired a single shot, which pierced Ava’s liver and one of her lungs and severed her spine. She died from her wounds.

Although the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office found that the shooting was justified because the officer believed Ava was going to bite him, Moore decided to sue the officer and the Town of Erie. She claimed that the officer shot Ava for no reason and then left her to die. His actions violated Moore’s Fourth Amendment rights, Edwards argued, because Ava’s death amounted to a seizure of Moore’s property without due process. Edwards also claimed that Erie failed to train its officers against using excessive force on family pets, and that Ava’s death caused the family “severe mental and physical anguish,” for which they sought counseling.

This past May, the Town of Erie settled the lawsuit for $40,000. The town also agreed to provide its officers with non-lethal dog-encounter training. In addition, Ava’s case was one of several high-profile dog shootings that led to a new state law nicknamed the Dog Protection Act. Edwards helped draft the language. It mandates that police departments undergo training and requires them to adopt policies and procedures regarding dog encounters, including one allowing owners to gain control of their animals when possible. Edwards thinks that provision is especially important in preventing deaths like Ava’s.

“It just felt like an incredible victory from many years of fighting the battles of these cases,” Edwards says. “It seemed like even more recognition that this is a problem.”

The case of Jamie Scott, the veterinary student who didn’t want to kill animals. Jamie Scott of Black Hawk dreamed of becoming a vet. In 2006, she attended an information session in Colorado for the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, which is located in the West Indies but is owned by DeVry, an American company.

According to a lawsuit filed by Edwards, Scott asked an admission representative at the seminar if students were required to perform terminal surgeries as part of the program. A terminal surgery is when vet students cause an otherwise healthy animal to die through an unnecessary procedure performed for learning purposes. “They would take off a leg and watch to see how that would heal,” Edwards says. “Take out a kidney, watch to see how that would heal. And ultimately, they would take out its heart and it would die.... These animals were living through hell, surgery after surgery after surgery.”

The admissions rep told Scott that the terminal surgeries at Ross were optional, the lawsuit claimed. So Scott applied and was accepted. But once she got to Ross, she learned that the rep had been wrong when a tour guide pointed out a donkey that would be used for terminal surgery. According to the lawsuit, Scott took her concerns to the dean but was told that she should just drop out because she would fail if she refused to perform terminal surgeries.

Instead, she contacted Edwards and filed a lawsuit. It claimed that Scott, a vegan, loved animals so much that they were like a religion to her, and requiring her to kill them was a violation of her First Amendment rights. The lawsuit also claimed that the admissions rep lied and the school breached its contract with Scott, who’d signed up for a cruelty-free education.

The lawsuit was eventually settled, and Ross discontinued its terminal-surgery program. Edwards says it also “really woke up a lot of other places to do the same. It had a positive chilling effect on the terminal-surgery programs that still existed.”

The case of Ben Weinroth, who was accused of doping his prize-winning goats. Maggie and Ben Weinroth were just teenagers when the Colorado State Fair accused them of drugging their champion goats in 2011. Ben’s goat was randomly selected for drug-testing, and when it tested positive for ractopamine, a feed additive used to make pigs more muscular, the state fair tested his older sister Maggie’s goat, as well. It, too, tested positive for the drug.

But Ben and Maggie were adamant that they hadn’t doped their animals and suspected foul play. One morning, they showed up to the fair to find their animals severely dehydrated and suffering from diarrhea. The feed in the goats’ pens had been dumped on the ground. “It’s heavy competition in these things,” Edwards says. “It truly is cutthroat.”

"I take the animal knowledge, the science knowledge, and I think outside the box."

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Nevertheless, fair officials stripped the siblings of their titles and banned Ben from future competition. (Maggie had aged out.) The news was devastating, Edwards recalls. “His whole life was showing his goats. I really got introduced to how hard these kids worked, and the dedication.”

The Weinroths appealed the disqualification to the board of the Colorado State Fair and hired Edwards to represent them. The goats had since been killed (as happens even with championship goats), but Edwards fought to get ahold of some test results that showed that the goats’ eyeballs had tested negative for ractopamine, suggesting that their exposure hadn’t been long-term. After a day of mediation, fair officials agreed to clear the teenagers’ names and allow Ben to continue to compete — but not before the story went viral. Since then, Edwards says, she’s gotten calls from all over the country from people facing false ractopamine-doping charges and has advised on many other cases. Swearingen jokingly calls her the Ractopamine Queen.

“I take the animal knowledge, the science knowledge, and I think outside the box,” Edwards says by way of explaining her success. “And that’s the big part of animal law: You are not able to just sit inside your little comfortable box. You have got to think outside of it and take interesting, unprecedented and unorthodox approaches to everything. Because a lot of these cases do not have pro-animal legal precedent. You are creating it.”

The case of Ruthie, the dog who was injured and left to die. Ruthie was the shop dog at Talulah Jones, a Denver boutique. She was also a beloved playmate of shop owner Robin Lohre’s daughter Imogene, who would dress Ruthie up in doll clothes and sing to her for hours.

In August 2011, Lohre bought a Living Social deal for a three-hour housecleaning by a company called Posh Maids. When a maid showed up, Lohre offered to take Ruthie with her out of the house. But a lawsuit that Edwards filed on Lohre’s behalf said that the maid said it was okay to leave the dog. Lohre did, but not before instructing the maid to use the back door, which was connected to a mud room that had a second door that prevented Ruthie from getting out.

About two and a half hours after the maid arrived, Lohre got a phone call saying that her cleaning was finished early because a second maid had come to help. When Lohre and her daughter got home half an hour later, they found Ruthie dead under the kitchen table. Lohre called the owner of Posh Maids, who said that Ruthie had been hit by a car. When the maids left Lohre’s house, the owner said, Ruthie was alive but “whimpering a little,” according to the lawsuit. A necropsy showed that Ruthie died of blunt-force trauma.

Lohre hired Edwards, who filed a lawsuit against Posh Maids and its owner. She claimed that Posh Maids was negligent in caring for Lohre’s property because its maids hadn’t sought veterinary help for Ruthie, who even had pet health insurance. Edwards also claimed that Ruthie’s death caused Lohre and Imogene emotional distress.

The case ended up before a judge, who awarded Lohre $65,000 in damages “over Ruthie, who was just a plain old mutt,” Edwards says. “No special breeding, no special anything. Just the love of these people’s lives and the sister to a little girl, the daughter to a woman.”

The case of Spork, the tiny dachshund who faced a big penalty for biting a vet tech. Spork’s case made headlines. It got so big and heated, in fact, that the day that Edwards showed up to the Lafayette municipal court to defend the dachshund on a vicious-dog charge, there were SWAT-team officers on the courthouse roof and armed sheriffs in the courtroom. “There were death threats against the judge,” Edwards says. “It was ridiculous.”

It all started in August 2009, when Spork’s owner, Kelly Walker, took the ten-year-old dog to the vet for oral surgery. Spork was nervous and bit a vet tech in the lip. The bite was serious, and the vet tech decided to pursue a charge against Kelly and her husband, Tim. They were cited under Lafayette’s municipal ordinance, which doesn’t contain a dog-bite exemption for veterinarians and other professionals who work with animals. The state law does.

The Walkers were worried that if a judge found that their dachshund was indeed vicious, Spork could be euthanized. So they hired Edwards, who filed a motion to dismiss the charge.

The case was covered widely in the press, and a “Save Spork” Facebook page spread the story even further. One Lafayette city councilman became so frustrated with what he viewed as one-sided coverage that he began speaking out against Spork, defending the vet tech and suggesting to Westword and other media outlets that the dog had actually swallowed her lips.

“It was pretty intense,” Edwards says. “We talk to the prosecutors, we talk to the attorneys on the other side, and they say, ‘We have these horrific child-abuse cases,’ and they don’t get the number of phone calls and threats that they do when it comes to an animal case.”

Spork’s saga eventually ended with a deferred prosecution, meaning that if the dog stayed citation-free for six months, the charge would be dropped.

Strangely, the vet tech was the victim of another incident three years later, when a bomb went off in her car after she opened a package. Though the police eventually suspected the vet tech’s ex-husband, Edwards says she got a call from the cops asking if she knew who might be behind the bombing.

Edwards is pleased that DU has a new professorship dedicated to animal law. She believes that education is key to growing the burgeoning field. There are a lot of Sporks and Ruthies and Hammys out there, and though she’d like to, she can’t represent them all.

For instance, she says, she’d love to see an animal-law clinic in Colorado that has law students representing low-income, elderly would-be pet owners who are sometimes turned down for adoptions because shelters fear that the animals will outlive the people and end up homeless again. In those instances, Edwards says, a pet trust that lays out a plan for after the owner’s death is a great option that can help shelters feel more comfortable.

“It’s mutually beneficial, because this animal that’s otherwise sitting in a shelter gets connected with this person who’s going to give every moment of their attention to this animal, and it’s a great health benefit for the person,” Edwards says. In 2013, Edwards started a nonprofit called the Animal Justice Center that provides free and low-cost representation to animal owners and others. But, she says, “there’s a lot more need for that than we’re able to fill.”
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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar