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September 5, 2006

Maddy Tarnofsky, Pet Lawyer


That's her above, the red-haired woman in the middle, pictured with a client (the pigeon, booboo).

Pets have detectives so why shouldn't there be lawyers too?

That's precisely the question Warren St. John attempted to answer in his September 3 New York Times Sunday Styles section front-page story, which follows.

    New Breed of Lawyer Gives Every Dog His Day in Court

    For pigeons in New York City, Bobby, Bertha and Sparky had it pretty good. After being injured in Central Park each was rescued by Gela Kline and Al Streit — founders of a group called Pigeon People — and given a home in the couple’s rent-stabilized apartment on the Upper West Side, where for years the birds passed the time cooing and making music by pecking the keys of a toy piano.

    A few years ago, however, the building went co-op, and the new landlords wanted the couple — and their birds — out. They sued to evict, citing an old city ordinance that outlawed chickens, ducks, cows “or any pigeon except Antwerp or homing pigeons” in a New York apartment. Ms. Kline and Mr. Streit thought they were doomed.

    Then they called Maddy Tarnofsky, pet lawyer, who quickly spotted a weakness in the landlord’s case: How exactly, she wondered, could the landlord prove that Bobby, Bertha and Sparky weren’t Antwerp or homing pigeons after all?

    She soon found one bird veterinarian who would testify that there was no biological difference between Antwerp pigeons and the couple’s birds — or any other pigeons — and another who would testify that the birds could probably be taught to home. The co-op’s lawyer had no response, and on April 27, after four years of legal battles, a housing court judge threw out the suit, allowing the couple and their pigeons to stay put.

    “When I win it’s like a win for my own pet,” said Ms. Tarnofsky, herself an owner of a black Labrador called Moose. “People say to me you can’t get so emotionally involved. But I say, that’s just the deal.”

    Not so long ago there were only a few pet lawyers like Ms. Tarnofsky, and they occupied the margins of the legal world. Because pets are viewed by the law as mere property in most states, and therefore worth only what the owners paid for them, pet lawyers worked with little hope of recovering damages and were motivated solely by their love of animals.

    But in recent years, as pet owners have struggled to negotiate pet ownership in modern life, and as society has grappled with questions of the value and status of its domesticated animals, animal law has become a growing specialty in the legal world. A decade ago only a few law schools taught animal law. Today 70 do, including Harvard, Columbia and Duke. In fall 2004 the American Bar Association formed its first committee on animal law, which many say legitimized the discipline.

    “The rate of growth in this field is incredible,” said Stephen Wells, the executive director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund in Cotati, Calif. “A lot of the scoffing and raising eyebrows I saw when I started in animal law has gone away.”

    The rise of animal law — which includes dog bites, custody battles, pet trusts and veterinary malpractice — has divided traditional pet advocates. Many veterinarians, for example, fear that pet lawyers could become the animal-world equivalent of medical malpractice lawyers, reaping large jury awards and contributing to a rise in malpractice insurance costs. The American Veterinary Medical Association formed a task force on animal law last year and came out squarely against redefining the legal status of pets.

    “We feel if we go into that direction, there are going to be a lot of losers,” said Adrian Hochstadt, a spokesman for the association. “The minute we start with skyrocketing awards, it would lead to higher malpractice insurance rates and higher fees. The only people who would benefit would be a few owners who hit that jackpot and a few attorneys.”

    Many animal lawyers are careful to distinguish themselves from animal rights advocates. Rather than agitating for the rights of pets — or “companion animals” as animal lawyers prefer to call them — these lawyers say they are concerned primarily with getting the legal system to acknowledge that animals have an intrinsic value beyond mere property, because of the bond between pets and their owners.

    That bond has changed over time, said Barbara J. Gislason, a Minneapolis animal lawyer, who helped found the American Bar Association committee on animal law, as pets have become more valued for their companionship than for their ability to work, on farms, for instance.

    “Now people think of them as valuable in a way they never did before,” she said.

    Animal lawyers argue that the law should reflect this change, especially in cases of negligence. Jeffrey Delott, a Long Island lawyer who has handled pet cases, summed up the position of many animal lawyers this way, “I’d argue that breaking the leg of a pet isn’t the same as breaking the leg of a table.”

    There is evidence that courts are coming around to this way of thinking. In May an Oregon jury ordered a man who intentionally ran over a neighbor’s dog to pay $56,400 in damages, far more than the fair market value of the animal. Last month, in a case involving a cat called Max, who was tortured and killed by three men, a state appeals court in Washington ruled that a Spokane woman could receive damages based on Max’s emotional value.

    Other branches of animal law are evolving even more rapidly. In the last five years, 25 states have passed laws allowing pet owners to establish trusts for their animals, to ensure they are taken care of after the owner dies. Frances Carlisle, a Manhattan pet lawyer who specializes in pet trusts and estates, said she has set up trusts for owners of dogs, cats, birds and even turtles.

    One client took out a $300,000 life insurance policy to pay for the care of his dogs, she said, while another left a house in upstate New York in a pet trust, so his animals did not have to move when he died.

    As with trusts for humans, pet trusts can be challenged by survivors who feel left out or who see the sums left for pet care as excessive.

    “A family member could say there’s too much money in this trust,” Ms. Carlisle said. “There’s always the potential for litigation.”

    Limitations on the value of pets discourage many from suing for veterinary malpractice, pet lawyers say. But those facing eviction from rent-stabilized apartments because of their pets are more willing to spend money on a pet lawyer, said Darryl M. Vernon, a partner in the Manhattan law firm of Vernon & Ginsburg, who specializes in housing cases stemming from pet ownership.

    Mr. Vernon has had clients who spent more than $30,000 fighting such suits. He said he had successfully defended the owner of a cat that was suspected of being part bobcat and a dog owner whose animal was accused of being part wolf. (Wild animals are illegal in New York apartment buildings.)

    Most pet cases in New York housing courts come down to what is known as the 90-day rule. Landlords have 90 days to file suit once they know a pet is living in a building in violation of a lease. If tenants can prove that the landlords knew about the pets for longer but didn’t act, they can have the suits thrown out.

    That was the case last month for Cindy Colón, the owner of Mia and Bella, two Maltese, who lives in a rent-stabilized building in the Bronx. Ms. Colón said she had had her dogs for nearly two years before her landlord attempted to have her removed. She called former doormen to testify that they were aware of the dogs more than 90 days before the suit was filed. She won but spent $25,000 to $30,000 for fees to Mr. Vernon. Ms. Colón said she had no regrets.

    “It was money well spent, because I won my case,” she said.



No animals were harmed in the preparation of this post.

September 5, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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Recently my dog was sick. The vet I took her to misdiagnosed her. I took her to a new vet and they diagnosed her with a fatal disease that needed emergency surgery. Thankfully she made it, but I wanted to know if there are lawyers for animals like for people who get misdiagnosed. If you can help please email me back at kitten19708@yahoo.com. Thank you for you time.

Posted by: Joann Logue | Nov 29, 2008 9:42:49 AM

i need help gettin my be loved cat back

Posted by: anthony britten | Aug 11, 2007 6:16:10 PM

Just wanted you to know that I personally know and do freelance paralegal work for Maddy. I admire her as a person, her ethics and knowledge of the law. I am lucky to know her and priviledged to work with her.

Posted by: Jennifer | Sep 8, 2006 1:01:36 AM

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