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A good judge and a strong Texas law give animals their due

A good judge and a strong Texas law give animals their due

Jan. 07, 2010

By MIKE NORMAN <mnorman @ star-telegram.com> (close spaces)

I have a new hero. He's Associate Judge Michael Smith of the Arlington Municipal Court, who this week hammered U.S. Global Exotics for mistreating about 27,000 animals.

His seven-page ruling in the case, delivered Tuesday after he wrapped up a seven-day hearing on the matter last week, was as solid, balanced and well-reasoned as any court opinion I have read.

From the looks of the photographs, video and audio posted online by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he got it right. No animal should be forced to live under conditions like those at U.S. Global Exotics -- and Texas law is written to protect "every living dumb creature" from exactly such conditions.

Call me cynical, but in many cases I find Texas law to be inadequate. In this case, the statutes are strong and clear in favor of protecting animals first and then sorting out the details in a custody hearing within 10 days.

Municipal courts aren't exactly the Supreme Court of the United States. They mostly hear cases like contested speeding tickets and other traffic violations, complaints that people have failed to keep their property up to city code and public intoxication charges.

It�s not usually the place for a judge to make headlines, but each case involves a real person who deserves careful consideration and justice, as well as a legal complaint that must be answered.

Smith's ruling wiped out the inventory of an international business, about 500 species of animals -- chinchillas, coatimundi, frogs, hamsters, hedgehogs, iguanas, kinkajous, lizards, prairie dogs, sloths, snakes, spiders and thousands of baby turtles -- most captured in the wild and all bound for sale in pet shops, to zoos and to private owners. It was a big case; seven days of testimony show everyone involved took it seriously.

Lawyers did what lawyers do. Lance Evans, representing the company, argued among other things that U.S. Global Exotics was not properly identified as the owner of the animals in the warrant under which they were seized on Dec. 15.

Smith recognized the empty argument. The law allows officials to take quick action to protect animals when there�s reason to believe it's needed, even when they have been unable or have not had time to determine ownership. And besides, Jasen Shaw, the president of U.S. Global Exotics was present during the seizure and was handed written notice of the custody hearing that started Dec. 18.

Notice to the owner is required, but the law says the "knowledge and acts of an agent or employee of a corporation" such as U.S. Global Exotics are the same as those of the corporation.

Smith was willing to cut U.S. Global Exotics some slack. He said he found "some merit in the proposition that a facility that is being used as a temporary holding facility . . . might reasonably be held to a slightly lower standard than would a facility where the animals will be kept for an indefinite period."

But, he said, U.S. Global Exotics took no steps "to insure that more intensive and generous care was given to those whose stay was being extended." The company didn't feed, water or care for its animals properly.

Finally, Smith was not sidetracked by claims that PETA was wrong to send an undercover investigator to take a job at U.S. Global Exotics and expose its inhumane treatment of animals. Neither PETA nor its tactics were on trial; the question at hand was whether thousands of creatures had received proper care at an Arlington warehouse.

They didn't. They've been taken away from U.S. Global Exotics, and the thousands that survive are getting the care they deserve.

We have a good judge and a strong Texas law to thank.

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