Every Dog Wants to Have Its Day in Court

Basset Hound puppy
Basset Hound puppy Wikimedia Commons

There's a new puppy in our house, and we're treating her like a queen. At dawn's early whimper, we hop out of bed and let Lucca outside. We feed her on demand. When she chews a book or breaks a priceless vase, we say, "Atta girl, Lucca!" We're not just being kind, we're being cautious. We can't afford another lawsuit.

Animal law is a burgeoning field. Attorneys with clients named Ginger and Snuggums are stepping to the bar, and every dog is having its day in court. Cats, too, not to mention a dolphin named Rainbow who, with the help of an animal lawyer, recently sued her aquarium. Two years ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled on a case involving the right of a lonely chimp named Barney to have a companion share his cage.

Some may see this as animal rights run amok, but our other dog, Rosie, begs to differ. A white mutt easily muddied by a romp outside, Rosie may look meek, but she's in the forefront — forepaw, perhaps — of animal law. Back when other pets were just howling about their rights, Rosie was getting even.

Two years ago, Rosie sued my wife and me, charging "1) that defendants fed plaintiff inedible chunks of stale fodder laughingly called 'dog food'; 2) that defendants regularly pet plaintiff on the head, resulting in a crippling loss of self-esteem; and 3) that plaintiff's so-called 'owners' treated plaintiff as if she were not a sentient being but mere property."

Go ahead and make lawyer jokes. We laughed, too, until we found out Rosie was seeking $1 million in damages. What's more, her lawyer threatened to take the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary.

We tried to settle. First we offered Rosie steaks. Her lawyer wouldn't even talk to our lawyer about that. Then we tried doggie pillows and whole bags of bones, but those inducements only made matters worse. Rosie and our other pets — Mittens the cat, Beauty the hermit crab and Gertrude Stein, our goldfish — became co-plaintiffs. Their lawsuit charged us with heinous acts, including attempted poisoning with tick powder, wrongful imprisonment and overfeeding. "Are we to be a nation of laws," the suit asked, "or a nation of men who think it's cute to make their pets do stupid tricks on the David Letterman show?"

At the trial last month, Rosie was the first witness. She looked so noble as she barked to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. Then it was her lawyer's turn.

"Rosie, where were you on the night of October 27, 1991, after your so-called ‘owners' brought you home?"


"In your doghouse, I thought so. And did the plaintiffs feed you those inhumane doggie crumbles?"


"Objection!" our lawyer chimed in. "Counsel is leading the witness! Look at that soup bone in his hand!"

"Objection overruled!"

It was then that I noticed the jury. Seated in the box were three collies, two Siamese cats, two goldfish, a hermit crab and four gerbils. We didn't stand a chance. On our lawyer's advice, we plea-bargained. We agreed not to treat our pets like lowly animals, and our menagerie agreed to seek no monetary damages. My wife and I were sentenced to 100 hours of service at the local dog pound. If we humiliate Rosie or Mittens by petting them, if we don't feed Gertrude Stein the best goldfish flakes, if we don't get Beauty a new shell every year, we'll be behind bars before you can say "my dog has fleas."

So when Lucca left a little present for us on the kitchen floor the other day, I didn't brandish a rolled-up newspaper and shout, "Bad dog!" I just said, "I know, Lucca — you're innocent until proven guilty," and tossed her a tenderloin tip.

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