Practical Issues > Politics

Paul Leonard goes for the dogs
Former Ohio lieutenant governor and Dayton Mayor Paul R. Leonard
is the board chairman this year of the California-based
 Animal Legal Defense Fund.
ALDF fights to protect animals through the legal system.
Dayton Daily News editorial page writer Martin Gottlieb.
March 6, 2006

Q: Legal rights for animals, huh? What are we talking about here: court-appointed attorneys for schnauzers who are forced to wear sweater vests? I mean, when I hear "legal rights," I'm picturing the animal as the plaintiff. Is that where we're going?

A: No. We are talking about, either via case law or legislation, redefining the status of animals to something between "property rights" (the current law) and "rights of personhood."

That would allow for the following examples: family courts deciding custody issues, i.e. what is in the best interest of the family pet instead of throwing the dog or cat into the property-division mix; allowing animals to become the beneficiaries of a testator's trust instead of extinguishing the life of a loved animal when the pet-guardian dies; and, recognizing the reality of emotional distress suffered by pet-guardians when the family pet is the victim of someone else's cruelty or destruction, instead of limiting damage awards to the "fair market value" of the "property."

The law needs to recognize that animals are not "owned" by anyone. Ownership of living things was eliminated when we eliminated slavery; animals are God's creatures; they deserve to be adopted by a "pet-guardian."

Q: That's a lot to chew on. Let's start here: "Ownership of living things was eliminated when we eliminated slavery?" Wow. Come on. You can't possibly believe that Lincoln had dogs in mind. I really think you need to back off that. It trivializes slavery.

A: That's not a legal theory. That's my personal view. No living thing, from my personal point of view, "owns" any other living thing. We are merely guardians of God's creatures, just as we are guardians of the environment.

The "slavery reference" was not meant to be communicated as a legal precedent. It was merely a way of making my point -- i.e. no ownership of living things. I don't have the slightest idea what was going through Honest Abe's mind.

Q: Political animal that I am, one thing that occurs to me about your position is that it might divide your natural constituency: pet owners. I would imagine that there are lots of perfectly decent pet owners out there who don't want any outside authority having any more power over how they treat their pets. I could imagine a movement of pet owners going in exactly the opposite direction: let's keep the lawyers and the courts out of this whole realm.

A: Quite the contrary. It is my feeling that most "good" pet-guardians understand that, unfortunately, many pet "owners" are not responsible people. Most also know that Ohio laws to protect animals are seriously lacking.

Many animal-friendly organizations will tell you that Ohio is near the bottom of the list when it comes to protection of animals.

We have a weak felony animal-cruelty law on the books; most prosecutors are not interested in spending time or resources on prosecuting animal neglect and cruelty cases.

We do not have a law on the books, like the one in North Carolina, which allows for private prosecutions in cruelty and neglect cases where the local district attorney is not interested, or does not have the time or resources.

And, all too often, law enforcement persons are not committed to enforcing laws already on the books. They too, will say that these cases are not a priority. But, when you remember that Jeffrey Dahmer began his gruesome tendencies by abusing animals and storing their parts in the refrigerator, these cases ought to be a priority for all police agencies.

Q: But your motivation doesn't really seem to be about a Dahmer situation. It seems to be about the animals themselves. Tell me the lowest sort of offense against an animal that you think should be aggressively prosecuted as a felony. Should people have the right to put "their" animals to rest without government oversight?

A: I believe that physical abuse or neglect of a companion animal should be aggressively prosecuted as a felony. The law should have graduated penalties for repeat offenders.

Plain and simple: abuse a companion animal and go to jail. Too many judges do not consider abuse or neglect of companion animals a serious offense. They should. There are too many studies out there that verify animal abuse as a first step toward family/spousal abuse.

We might be able to save some lives by treating animal abuse more seriously in the legal process.

Q: My guess is that a lot of people would respond by noting that the courts and the police seem to keep pretty busy trying to protect people. Aren't you concerned that your proposal would be time-consuming and expensive? Would a county the size of Montgomery, say, have to set up a special court, or to have days when a certain judge would only work on animal cases?

A: I've certainly heard that argument before. I believe however, that the perception of the extent of an additional caseload is much greater than the reality. The ALDF has a former president of the National District Attorneys Association on the board of directors. Like any other crime, he picks his spots. He looks for an opportunity to send a message. The good news is that these cases tend to get considerable publicity. The abusers usually get the message pretty quick, i.e. this jurisdiction will prosecute abusers.

A few good, high-profile prosecutions can accomplish a lot of good. In the civil area, there has been an explosion of law schools that now teach animal law, and lawyers who are practicing animal law -- more as a matter of principle as opposed to a means to generate income. I am one of those lawyers.

I, too, pick my spots. I'm looking for substantive cases that will change the law. I would argue that justice cannot be a matter of priorities; it has to be a matter of what's right, no matter the cost.

Q: I've been focusing my questions on the criminal side, but you started by talking more about divorce cases. You would, I gather, treat pets essentially like children, and make the issue custody. So, in a dispute, some professional would have to look into the situation and decide who is the more fit "custodian."

A: I do believe that most gains stand to be made in the civil arena. Of course, it will take a little judicial activism. Remember, we do not advocate that companion animals have the same status as children, albeit more and more Americans consider their companion animals as family members.

We just want them treated differently than the family television set. A guardian ad litem would not be necessary. Testimony under oath would be sufficient. The court will have to look at who can best spend the necessary time on the care and upkeep of companion animals; and which party to a divorce will have the financial ability to adequately care and feed their companion animals; and, of course, any evidence of abuse in a marriage should rule out guardianship of a companion animal.

Already, some states are providing for visitation arrangements with companion animals where both parties to a divorce are deemed equally capable to function as a responsible pet guardian.

Q: I suppose some people will wonder how far we are taking this. Goldfish? Or does the concept of "companion animal" rule out certain species?

A: The animal-friendly movement focuses on "companion animals" because that's where we are likely to have the best chance of rallying "political" support. The bond between people and their companion animals (traditionally defined in terms of dogs, cats, and, in some instances, birds) is strongest.

People can relate to their dog, cat or parrot, and, as I have previously said, often see them as something more than just a pet. It is my belief that criminal penalties should attach to all misconduct that fits the classification of neglect and/or cruelty -- no matter what animal we are talking about.

Life is precious. The expansion of legal rights in the civil arena, however, in order to be accepted as reasonable by voters and courts of law, must occur in small steps. Common sense must be the guide in order to avoid the "radical" label with respect to any new case law or statutory law enacted in this area.

Q: Yeah. Seems to me that, more and more, when people think of animal rights activists, they think of people who splash blood on people they don't like, or, at least, of vegetarians. I know you're not a blood-splasher. Are you a vegetarian?

A: No, I am not. I am however, very selective. For example, I would never eat veal because I have seen how young cows are held captive for the purpose of tenderizing the meat.

I will not eat Kentucky Fried Chicken because animal cruelty appears to be an acceptable culture in that corporation. I will not buy Iams products for my dogs because Iams is now owned by Procter & Gamble which has a reputation for engaging in cruel, animal-testing procedures.

I believe that the choice of diet is a personal matter and, in some cases, motivated by one's health concerns.

You don't have to be a vegan or vegetarian to advocate against cruelty and neglect. I am not a hunter either, but I understand the role of hunting in our nation's history, so I do not condemn those who choose to be hunters. In my opinion, however, hunting will never be a sport until the deer can shoot back.

I also find myself rooting for the bull when I see video of bullfights on television.

Q: I'd like to circle back to "judicial activism," since you used the phrase, and it's much in the news. I gather that you're saying that the courts need to start acting differently even if no laws are changed. Right?

A: Yes. Basic animal welfare law is ripe for some judicial activism. Usually, the law is often ahead of public opinion. In this particular area, the law seriously lags behind public opinion and common sense.

Not long ago I had a case in front of the court of appeals where I asked our judges to recognize that there are, in reality, two kinds of property under the law: "inanimate" property (couches and television sets) and "animate" property (animal life).

I argued that appellate court recognition of that common-sense approach to the issue of kinds of "property" would help force the Legislature to address the need for a reasonable expansion of legal rights for "animate property."

Unfortunately, there was an acknowledgement that although my arguments made sense, the court chose not to "make law" and directed me to the Legislature.

In my opinion, we have a better chance of achieving a reasonable expansion of legal rights for animals in the nation's court system. Legislatures are a dead-end.

This is not a politically popular issue with politicians. For the most part, they equate legal rights for animals with radical "tree-hugger" types. Moreover, the constituency that we are fighting for does not line the pockets of Ohio's politicians with money -- although, I have had four-legged clients who pay better than some two-legged clients!

Q: Hmmm. You say you can't build a potent political movement, even though pet owners number in the zillions, and many have their share of disposable income. So you want to use the courts as a back door. I can imagine that posture getting your organization some attention. I can't imagine much approval. Is the goal simply attention?

A: Absolutely not. The goal is progress -- changes in the law, regardless of how that can be achieved. The general belief, at least in our organization -- aldf -- is that the legislative process is slow, tedious, and money-driven.

Justice for animals is likely to be achieved in the courts without engaging in the "pay to play" game that is so much a part of today's legislative process. That is not to say that there are no animal-friendly groups working the halls of Congress and the legislatures. That is not the choice of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

We are lawyers. We are better prepared to use the courts with the hope that our expertise can be utilized in that venue as opposed to lobbying Congress and the state legislatures.

Q: Last question: I don't know anything about the internal politics of the ALDF, but I'd have to guess that your identity as a former lieutenant governor of Ohio and your experience in the public eye are seen as assets to the organization. Will we be seeing you giving national media interviews and generally playing spokesman?

A: I doubt it. We have just created a "founder's division" so that our founder, Joyce Tischler, who has been the organization's executive director since the 1970s, can be relieved of personnel and management responsibilities, for the purpose of focusing on raising money and being the "voice" of the organization.

During my tenure as board chair, I will be doing some traveling and will focus on meeting with our major donors to emphasize our appreciation, talk about our successes and the challenges ahead, and hopefully raise some additional funds.

I will also assist in establishing animal law courses at American law schools that do not as yet offer courses.

Our goal is to raise a whole new generation of lawyers committed to "rocking the boat" a little, and using the legal system to improve upon animal rights. I have volunteered to teach a course at the first Ohio law school that agrees to add animal law to its curriculum.

We participate in moot court competition at Harvard and sponsor an animal law conference at Yale. I expect to play some kind of role at both of those events. This commitment has been the most rewarding service in my life.

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