Demand grows for 'animal law' expertise

Owners want pets treated as family, not property

  • Rebekah Lusk, left, an animal law attorney with Thienel Law Firm, is representing her client, Roger Jenkins, whose dog Brandi survived after being shot by a Frederick County Sheriff deputy in January this year.
Rebekah Lusk, left, an animal law attorney with Thienel Law… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
December 27, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Sheriff's deputies knocked on Roger and Sandra Jenkins' front door in Taneytown early one Saturday in January to serve a court paper to the couple's teenage son. Within minutes, a chaotic scene unfolded, and the family's chocolate Labrador retriever was shot by one of the deputies and collapsed bleeding in the snow.

The dog survived, but its owners say it is permanently disabled. The couple sued, alleging reckless endangerment and infliction of emotional distress.

Their lawsuit, filed against the Frederick County Sheriff's Department in October, is part of a growing body of case law dealing with animal issues. The rapidly evolving field of animal law is not only being shaped by court decisions and new legislation, but has become a subject for study in law school. The University of Baltimore and University of Maryland both offer seminars in animal law.

The demand for lawyers who specialize in animals has increased as people insist that the law treat their pets as part of the family rather than property, attorneys say. The allegations in the Jenkins' lawsuit point to the heart of the matter: While the law traditionally has considered pets possessions, to their owners they are irreplaceable companions.

"The common law is that a dog is just chattel, a piece of property that's easily replaced," said Rebekah Lusk, an associate attorney with the Thienel Law Firm in Columbia who handles animal law cases and represents Roger and Sandra Jenkins. "People focusing on animal law are saying the courts need to see animals as not just a replacement piece of property."

That is beginning to happen in Maryland and other states.

Maryland lawmakers approved a measure in 2009 enabling pet owners to set up trusts for their animals. The law allows an owner to designate a trustee to oversee the care of the animal upon the owner's death in the same way a parent would create a trust for offspring.

Custody cases involving pets also have been filed. In July, a Calvert County Circuit Court judge ordered a divorcing couple to share custody of their dog — a decision that lawyers believe was a first in the state.

And law schools are seeing increased interest in the animal law field. Seminars address animal welfare, pet trusts, veterinary malpractice, endangered species, First Amendment issues, divorce pet custody disputes, the link between animal cruelty and violent behavior, and animal legal standing.

"Judges are no longer laughing these issues out of court," said Alan Nemeth, an adjunct professor at the University of Baltimore who teaches a seminar in animal law. "It's become more legitimate, even in divorce cases. That's a big change, and it has been happening across the country."

Susan Hankin, an associate professor at the University of Maryland law school who has done research in the field, will be teaching an "Animals in the Law" seminar this spring. The seminar, first offered last year, focuses on the relationships between people and their pets, including estate planning, custody and service animals.

Courts in some jurisdictions have begun to make a link between domestic violence and cruelty to animals, Hankin said. "If someone goes to court to get a protective order, it includes not just the victim and her children, but her pets can be included," she said.

Noting that her class fills up quickly, Hankin said she has seen heightened student interest in the issues and in the practice of animal law. She said the breadth of the legal issues involved has stoked curiosity.

"There's an increasing recognition that animals play a role in our life that's different from property," she said. "It really includes a wide range of legal territory. … You can learn a lot of the areas of law by looking at the relationship between people and their companion animals."

In the Jenkins' case, according to the lawsuit filed in Frederick County Circuit Court, two deputy sheriffs went to the family's home to serve a court paper to their 18-year-old son, who no longer lived with his parents and was facing a drug possession charge.

Roger Jenkins says he told a deputy that he needed to put the family's dogs away before he allowed him in the house. The lawsuit says that while Jenkins was letting the dogs outside to put them in a kennel, his Labrador, Brandi, noticed the unfamiliar vehicles in the driveway and began barking.

That prompted an officer to shoot the dog in the leg and chest without warning, according to the lawsuit. "Characteristic of the Labrador retriever breed of dog, Brandi is very friendly, not aggressive, and posed no threat to the Deputies," the lawsuit states. "Her natural instinct, as is any dog's instinct, is to announce the presence of unfamiliar people on her property by barking."

The Frederick County Sheriff's Department denies liability and contends the actions were legally justified and that the defendant has immunity, according to a document filed with the court in December.

The incident followed the July 2008 shooting deaths of two Labrador retrievers in Prince George's County during a raid by a police SWAT team and county narcotics officers at the home of Berwyn Heights' Mayor Cheye Calvo. Police mistakenly thought his wife was involved in drug trafficking. That case garnered national attention.

A lawsuit filed by Calvo against the state of Maryland is pending.

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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