Animal Law Section holds conference

By Roberta M. Gubbins
Legal News

Humans and animals attended the State Bar of Michigan (SBM) Animal Law Conference held at the Michael Franck Building in downtown Lansing. The humans talked and the animals brought smiles to faces of the attendees. The event, titled Practical Aspects of Animal Law, took place on Saturday, Nov. 10. 

David Garlit, Chair of the Animal Law Section, opened the session introducing Raj Prasad, Assistant Prosecutor from Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office who, along with fellow prosecutor Amy Slameka, founded the Animal Protection Unit in 2008 to combat the underground criminal community that breeds, trains, houses and sells fighting animals.

“There are three types of animal cases,” said Prasad, “animals that are neglected, those that suffer intentional cruelty and animal fighting.” The statutes involved are MCL750.50, defining animal neglect and cruelty and MCL750.49 that addresses animal fighting.

To have a successful animal protection program, he said, “a two pronged approach is necessary. The first prong is finding an ASPCA that investigates and has been involved with a training program so they are able to recognize problems.”

The second prong is to find a prosecutor in your county “willing to take the cases to trial and judges who care about animals. It helps,” he said, “if another charge,” such as a drug charge or a domestic violence charge can be combined with the animal cruelty charge. 

“About 50 percent of my practice is animal related,” said Richard Angelo, Law Offices of Richard C. Angelo, Jr. taking up the topic of ‘Giving Animals a Voice.’

“There are so many areas of the law that go into the practice such as contracts, torts, and estate planning. A lot of my cases are defending on charges of owning a dangerous dog.”
He told the story of Riley and Shelby, pit bulls that were loose on their property when a bike rider came through on a bike path. They approached the rider, but did not knock him off his bike or touch him in any way. The biker complained, a hearing was held, the owners appeared and the judge ordered the dogs destroyed.

Angelo filed an appeal, saving the dogs lives, however, they were not allowed to return home and remain at the shelter even though, after almost 16 hours of testimony by expert dog trainers who had evaluated the pair, they were not labeled dangerous. 

“That case bothered me,” he said, “We were going to lose because of the owner who let the dogs run.”

Although the cases can be difficult, he urged the lawyers in the group to get involved.

“It is rewarding work. The feeling when the matter is closed and favorably resolved can’t be described,” Angelo said.

Animal Abuse Registry

Michigan State Representative Harvey Santana described the Animal Abuse Registry statute (HR 5403), which he will again propose in 2013. The law would require an adult convicted of animal abuse to register with the state. Those on the list would not be able to own an animal. All animal rescues, shelters and law enforcement officials could have access to the registry.
Dr. Joyce Heideman and Jezabelle (formerly Chloe), an eight pound Italian Greyhound joined Santana to provide a visual impact statement regarding animal abuse. Jezabelle is the only survivor of the recent case of animal cruelty. Her owner had killed at least 11 other Greyhounds, which he had purchased over a period of months.
An animal abuse registry could have prevented the sale of the animals to the abuser, Santana noted.

The Human Animal Bond

Hon. David Jordan presides over the Matt Brundage Ingham County Veterans Treatment Court since March 2010, where veterans, suffering from the effects of war and are charged with crimes are helped in readjusting to life out of the war zones.

Penni Elsesser, handler, and Roscoe, the therapy dog, have been assisting veterans at the Veteran’s Court for over a year. Roscoe mingles with the veterans offering the comforting and  familiar feel of cold nose and a warm coat.

“Roscoe,” said Judge Jordon, “instinctively finds those who are distressed. For example, Roscoe noticed one veteran who initially was withdrawn and he put his head on the veteran’s knee to comfort him. Roscoe humanizes the court.”

Judge Jordan confirmed there have been “no incidents” at the court, which he attributed to Elsesser’s training and Roscoe’s nature: “he’s just so calm.” 
Litigating Animal Law Disputes
Julie Fershtman, State Bar President, 2011-2012, and long-time member of the Animal Law Section, spoke of the challenges in litigating animal law disputes.
Fershtman began with the practical considerations.
“The reality of the animal related law practice is that damages are, under the prevailing Michigan law, not significant,” Fershtman said. “For example, your client’s house pet might have been the victim of veterinary malpractice, but even if the animal died, Michigan law would limit recovery to the animal’s fair market value.”
Current Michigan law doesn’t permit recovery of emotional distress-type damages over the injury or loss of a pet. Fershtman advised that lawyers put on their “counselor hat to manage client expectations.”
For those litigating on a shoestring, “consider alternative dispute resolution such as mediation and when drafting contracts for animal related businesses, include arbitration clauses.”
“The reality is that the costs of legal services are often more than the amount at stake.”
On the other hand, “It’s an absolute blast to take an animal case to trial. Remember that animal law is not well established so be professional since judges and opposing attorneys may trivialize the case and also that you are an ambassador for animal law attorneys and for the Section.”
Fershtman emphasized the importance of fully explaining the facts of your case to the judge or jury. Experts, which can make or break a case, must be qualified. She urged careful scrutiny of the opposing side’s expert to assure they have expertise on the specific issue involved in the case.
“Develop a network of attorneys, both in Michigan and out of state,” she said. “and share information.”
“The Internet is your friend, when it comes to marketing your practice,” said Fershtman in conclusion. She recommended publishing a blog to educate the public and attract clients, take on speaking engagements on animal law, attend various animal expo’s and Bar Association events “and be prepared to explain animal law.”