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Counselor for defenseless
Local attorney focuses on animal-welfare law
By Kimberly Matas
arizona daily star
Feb 28, 2006
Chris Wencker loves his critters -- two dogs, five cats and three rats � yet Arizona law makes little distinction between animal companions and other property, such as a bicycle or a coffee table.
Still, Wencker, a Tucson attorney with the Benavidez Law Group, envisions a future where animals have increased rights under the law.
He is a member of the Arizona State Bar's Animal Law Section. The section is made up, primarily, of lawyers with an interest in animal-welfare cases.
As a member of the section, "we're not allowed to advance any political agenda, . . . but that doesn't mean we can't focus on the importance animals have come to play in people's lives," he said. "What we try to do is focus on how society has elevated their status or failed to elevate their status."
Wencker became interested in animal law while attending the University of Arizona. He said he "flirted" with joining an environmental-based student law group, but there wasn't enough emphasis on animals.
Then he started dating the woman who became his wife, and she urged him to focus on animal-welfare issues. On her advice, Wencker founded a student branch of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
After graduating, he incorporated animal-welfare law into his practice.
"I've had pets ever since I can remember," Wencker said. "I always felt close to them, and they've always comforted me in times of difficulty and helped me feel better about the situations I've been in and made me feel happy and made me laugh
-- all the things that pets are great at doing for people -- and I took it a bit more to heart than other people, perhaps."
Although the Animal Law Section of the Arizona State Bar is apolitical, Wencker said, "I'm political as hell, and I personally have all kinds of views on that.
"There's already a big move toward granting animals a status that's better than property, but it's unworkable to give them the status of persons because they can't exercise their rights."
If they had that status, he said, "we couldn't eat them; we couldn't experiment on them; we couldn't hold them in captivity. There is an area in between where we grant them more rights than a piece of furniture but not complete legal personhood. I can foresee that. Especially as companion animals gain importance in people's lives, in society at large, the law will catch up.
"This is akin to civil rights, women's rights . . . any kind of movements where the laws lag behind any kind of social advancements," he said.
Marsh Myers, spokesman for the Animal Cruelty Taskforce of Southern Arizona, said animal laws are necessary because "there are certain people in our society that education and reason are never going to affect, and they are always going to victimize others. Animal law is important in dealing with that element of our society. The law recognizes . . . that these creatures are intrinsically valuable and deserving of protection."
Myers said he's seen improvements in Arizona animal laws in the last five years or so, but he still doesn't think penalties are tough enough for people who commit serious abuses against animals.
"I think we need some laws that include specific kinds of animal abuse. That can include hoarding and sexual assault on animals," Myers said. "I personally would like to see . . . more protections for livestock-type animals, but that's difficult in this state because we have some very strong ranching concerns who have historically been resistant to tightening up laws on those types of animals."
Pat Mehrhoff, trial supervisor for the city of Tucson, said animal-welfare laws are in place, but in general Arizonans have a different outlook on animals compared with residents of more urbanized states.
"Because Arizona is still really rural, and ranching and farming interests have a lot to do with this state's economy, you're talking cattle as dollar signs, so it's different here than it would be in New York," she said.
"When the Legislature enacts laws, the people who have pull influence them -- the farmers and the ranchers
-- people like that. That's their livelihood; that's what puts food on the table for their children. They're not really concerned that branding is painful. That's not to say everyone who is a farmer or a rancher has no feelings about animals; it's a factor you have to take into account."
Despite the rural ranching history, however, she sees changes coming in the way Arizonans view animals.
"I think there's a trend toward more humane treatment of animals, and I just think it's going to continue in that way, in the same way that years ago people became aware of child abuse and (that) it's a crime," Mehrhoff said.
"A child is not something you can beat mercilessly. The same thing is becoming pretty obvious with regard to animals."