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Chasing Justice

More and More Attorneys Are Pursuing Animals-Rights Cases in Growing Recognition of the Bond Between Pets and Their Owners

October 02, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The board of the red brick Manhattan co-op wanted to evict Berry, arguing it had a solid case. After all, the building's lease clearly barred pets, so it seemed the West Highland white terrier would have to go.

But Eric Feinberg, the pet lawyer, knew the law.

Under New York City statutes, an apartment dweller can keep a pet if the animal is visible for three months and legal proceedings don't begin during that period.

Berry's owner had regularly paraded her through the lobby--past the porter who played with the friendly dog--Feinberg told the city hearing officer. He said that Berry and her owner, Phyllis Holod, shared the same bench in the co-op's garden, for all to see.

The official ruled in Feinberg's favor.

"It was an open-and-shut case. She had the dog for over seven years," said the cheerful, slightly rumpled lawyer who perennially looks as if he's just played with puppies.

"Berry is my family," explained Holod, who lives alone. "I would have moved before I gave her up."

To such time-honored specialties as taxes, trust and estates, divorces and the criminal defense bar, add animal-rights law.

Some 52 million dogs and 60 million cats live in various stages of harmony in the U.S. New York City alone is home to about 1 million dogs and perhaps 2 million cats, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Back when man and beast shared companionship in caves, the bond was clear: Man fed beast. Beast protected man.

That was before dogs chased in-line skaters, landlords tried to evict pet owners from rent-controlled apartments, grieving clients filed malpractice suits against veterinarians and cities passed leash and pooper-scooper laws.

Filter in the nation's shrinking open space, thickets of conflicting local regulations, the full range of human emotions. Pets often are viewed as surrogate children and can become pawns in messy divorces, sparking monumental struggles over who keeps Fido or Fluffy.

Tainted Dog Food Led to a Career Shift

"More and more, people are getting interested in the practice," said Michael Rotsten, an Encino attorney who gave up defending criminals in 1992 after his Alaskan malamute, Taigo, ate salmonella-tainted dog food.

Rotsten threatened to sue the store. He collected $1,000 for emotional distress and $250 to cover the cost of his vet bills. With encouragement from animal-rights groups, his full-time clients soon became mastiffs and beagles instead of muggers and burglars.

"What's driving all of this is the incredible bond between people and their pets, along with the need for the attorneys to have new venues," said Jim Wilson, a lawyer and a veterinary consultant in Pennsylvania.

Now, at least six law schools offer courses in animal rights, and bar associations in New York, Michigan and Texas have established committees dealing with the subject.

"The satisfaction is representing creatures that need to have their voices heard," said Gilda I. Mariani, head of the New York City Bar Assn.'s committee on legal issues pertaining to animals.

Law students learn that the field is far more complicated than just pet cases. It encompasses broad issues, ranging from the treatment of animals in laboratories and on farms to hunting and fishing controversies.

"Animal law is in its infancy, like where environmental law was 25 years ago," said Laura Wilensky, communications director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit group based in Petaluma.

"It is a very exciting time," added Pamela Frasch, director of the fund's anticruelty division. "You have to be very creative. It really is a chance to write some law."

Frasch heads a unique program designed to help district attorneys handle animal abuse cases, which traditionally receive little attention and limited resources.

ALDF not only supplies legal briefs and expert witnesses, but also has a corps of volunteer lawyers ready to be deputized as special prosecutors to try the cases.

In July, when part of an elevator tower used to carry workers up the side of a building in Times Square collapsed, steel pierced the roof of a nearby hotel, killing an elderly woman. People were forced to flee so fast that their pets were left behind. Times Square was closed for days, and the owners grew frantic. A coalition of animal-rights lawyers went to court, and the timetable to rescue the animals was sped up. All those pets emerged unharmed. But living in the high-powered New York real estate market has proved risky for other pets.

"All the time, landlords try to throw out people with pets," Feinberg explained. "It's a way of getting a long-time tenant, especially a rent-stabilized or rent-controlled tenant, out."

Feinberg had been representing poor people in housing court when he bought Rascal, a terrier.

It changed his life.

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