Door opens for animal law attorneys

Posted: Sunday, June 09, 2002

SEATTLE (AP) -- If it hadn't been for lawyer Adam Karp, Cheryl Shute's 3-year-old dog might have been put to death.

The 3-year-old is a bull mastiff-yellow Labrador mix and Karp is one of a growing number of lawyers practicing animal law.

After Shute's dog, Kenny, bit a delivery man -- something he had never done before -- she turned to Karp for help getting the dog back from the pound. Following his advice that she collect written testimonials to Kenny's prior good behavior, including letters from delivery people, Shute was soon reunited with her pet.

Courts are handling an increasing number of animal-related issues, ranging from landlord-tenant disputes and custody battles to veterinarian malpractice.

The Washington State Bar Association recently became the fourth bar to create a section for lawyers interested in animal law. Earlier efforts were in Texas, Michigan and the District of Columbia. The new section allows opportunities for discussing issues and educating the public on animal rights, said Karp, who led efforts to create the section.

About 85 lawyers have said they plan to join and five other states are considering adding similar sections, said Stephen Wells, director of the law professional volunteer program for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Petaluma, Calif.

Wells said animal protection groups have helped heighten awareness of animal rights, and cases like this year's second-degree murder conviction of a San Francisco woman after her two dogs killed a neighbor help educate the public.

''I really think animal law is something that's come of age,'' Wells said.

Some law schools have begun offering animal-law classes, although none in Washington, and a journal -- Animal Law -- dedicated to animal-law issues is published in Portland, Ore.

Cruelty and dog bite cases are among the most common animal-law cases. Others include suing veterinarians for malpractice, establishing trust funds for pets in case their owners die and defending owners from civil suits after their animals attack.

Attorneys who take animal cases say the law views animals as property and ignores the emotional attachment people have to their animals.

As a result, insurance companies and some lawyers consider only replacement value when compensating someone for pets that are injured or killed.

''They're more than just property,'' said Tacoma attorney Elizabeth Powell, whose clients have included owners of dogs and horses. ''They're not a book or a chair.''

Karp, who refers to owners as ''guardians,'' believes animals themselves should be able to sue.

''That's going to sound crazy,'' he said. ''But in animal-cruelty cases, why shouldn't there be some sort of penalty or punishment, some acknowledgment the dog can seek compensation, in addition to the impact on his guardians?''

Lawyers that do take animal cases are usually animal lovers themselves and it's not unusual for attorneys to work for free.

''You have to do a lot of it on a discounted basis because people that usually have these kinds of cases aren't wealthy and they don't have insurance,'' said Gig Harbor lawyer G. Paul Mabrey, who worked 22 years as a veterinarian before entering the law profession.

''You've got to do it because you love it,'' Mabrey said. ''It's a labor of love.''

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