Practice of law makes room for pets

Animals' special relationship with humans is beginning to get recognition


When clients visit Bob Bohan's Annapolis law office, his priorities soon become apparent. There's an 8-by-10-inch photo of his foxhound, Maddy, displayed prominently in a cherry wood frame at the edge of his desk.

A much smaller photo of his wife, Barbara, is on the other side of the desk.

So it should come as no surprise that Bohan is carving out a niche in the growing field known as animal law, advising his elderly, two-legged clients on issues involving their furred dependents.

"As people are growing older and in some cases outliving children, I've seen a number of cases where the pets become the most important players in providing companionship," said Bohan.

At a time when many view pets as part of the family and not just as property, the legal profession is having to learn a new field of law, and courts are beginning to change the way domestic pets are classified.

Nationwide, lawyers find themselves handling a variety of once-unimaginable cases involving animals: custody disputes over cats and dogs whose owners are divorcing; medical malpractice suits against veterinarians; cruelty cases where owners have hoarded dozens of animals.

"It's essentially a changing relationship that people have with their companion animals," said Susan Hankin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who is writing a paper on the evolving legal status of pets.

"The way we value animals is changing, and the law is just beginning to catch up with that."

The University Maryland, along with 36 other law schools nationwide, now offers classes on animal law; the state bar is following the lead of others throughout the nation by creating an animal law committee; and 36 states have passed animal-related felony bills, according to the Maryland State Bar Association.

While the bar association knows of no lawyers who concentrate full time on animal law issues in Maryland, about 70 lawyers have signed up for the bar's new committee, said Janet Eveleth, a spokeswoman for the state bar.

Those lawyers include a Baltimore litigator with a degree in animal science who has no plans to practice animal law and Alan Nemeth, a Herndon, Va., lawyer who is a member of the Washington bar's animal law committee and approached the Maryland bar about starting its own committee.

Nemeth is especially interested in pet trust issues. Though animals in Maryland have no legal standing in the law, a growing number of states, including Arkansas, Oregon and Virginia, have statutes authorizing trusts for animals.

"No one really thinks about these issues until it happens to you, just like any type of law," Nemeth said.

Custody cases represent one of the hottest categories of animal law. One example: the widely reported 2000 fight over Gigi, a pointer-greyhound mix in San Diego, in which the divorcing owners spent $150,000 in legal fees and created a videotape, "Day in the Life of Gigi," to assist the judge in making a decision.

Such cases are complex because, legally, pets are property and can be viewed like a piece of furniture, said Bruce Wagman, director of litigation for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Cotati, Calif.

For example, a Pennsylvania judge in 2002 denied a divorcing couple shared custody of a dog, explaining the request was "analogous, in law, to a visitation schedule for a table or a lamp," according to one case cited by Hankin in her paper.

Wagman's group, by contrast, argues that the court should rule in the "best interests of the animal." His organization submits about 10 friend-of-the-court briefs each year representing that position.

When a judge buys such an argument, "That's a major advance," Wagman said. "That's really a court saying, `I understand that in the eyes of the law, the dog is a couch, but this is a couch that lives and breathes and feels and therefore has a consciousness.'"

Adam P. Karp, a lawyer in Bellingham, Wash., once handled a custody battle over a boxer named Marley whose owners - a man and woman living together - had broken up after a year.

The couple shared custody of the dog until the man, who apparently was fearful that his ex was going to keep the dog from him, took the pet and left a message for the woman, saying, "You'll never see the dog again. I hope you feel the pain you caused me. You've broken up the family."

Karp represented the woman. They sued for permanent custody and won.

Karp is a rarity - his entire legal practice consists of animal law. His cases reflect the sometimes-bizarre nature of this emerging field.

In one case, he represented a Washington woman whose daughter found a beagle mix apparently abandoned on the highway. They had the dog spayed - only to be sued about a year later by a woman claiming to be the original owner, who won $5,000 for the "intrinsic value" of the dog's reproductive tract.

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