The horse, a mare named Rain, died of starvation in a Willow Spring field. The grass had been gnawed to the ground. Six other horses that were also starving had resorted to eating bark off trees.
A dog, a red miniature pinscher, was found in a Lee County house stuffed in a cage roughly 24 inches by 18 inches, lying in a puddle of her own urine and feces. Hundreds of other dogs on the property were injured, sick or dying.
In both those cases, North Carolina law enabled a California-based rescue group, the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), to sue the owners and seize the animals. That law, known in the general statutes as Chapter 19a, is unique in that it gives private citizens and animal protection organizations the right to sue in animal cruelty cases. In other states, only government officials, such as local prosecutors and district attorneys, have that power. North Carolina is the only state to have such a law.
"We keep coming back to North Carolina to use the law," said Joyce Tischler, ALDF general counsel. "Citizens can do what in other states only the government can do and that's at the sole discretion of the prosecutor. Animal cruelty laws tend to be at the bottom of the barrel and are less likely to be enforced."
Chapter 19a has sparked a burgeoning legal specialty in North Carolina. The money is slim, the cases rewarding yet heartbreaking. In the Triangle, two private law firms and the Duke University Animal Law Project focus on legal issues related to animal welfare.
"It's one reason why there is more business in this state," says Professor Bill Reppy, director of the Animal Law Project. He assisted in the Lee County civil suit, now infamously known as the Woodley case, in which a judge awarded ALDF legal custody of hundreds of animals. In addition to the civil suit, Barbara and Robert Woodley of Sanford were subsequently found guilty on criminal charges of animal cruelty.
"You're not going to make any money at it. They [the lawyers] make their money elsewhere," Reppy says. "But it makes a difference having these law firms."
Reppy stumbled into animal law after working in a private firm and then serving as clerk in the Supreme Court of California and the U.S. Supreme Court. "I don't know how it happened," says Reppy, who, as a child, had one dog, a mutt named Frisky. He now has four rescue dogs. "I don't have any kids, and I have paternal energy."
The Animal Law Project schools prospective lawyers and provides support to activists, professionals and others who work for the welfare of animals.
When Calley Gerber decided to leave corporate law and start an animal law firm, she consulted with Reppy. "I didn't know anyone in animal law," says Gerber, who has been involved with a Great Dane rescue group. She owns a Great Dane, Presley, and an akita/ German shepherd mix named Justice; the two lie near her feet in her home office. "It's a new field, like environmental law was 15 years ago. I decided if there wasn't a place to be an animal lawyer, I'd create it."
Most of Gerber's cases involve personal disputes, including neighbors accusing neighbors of shooting, poisoning or harming their pets. (She does not take cases alleging medical malpractice against veterinarians, nor those involving dog bites.)
Gerber also intervenes in criminal cases, such as those involving dog fighting, cruelty or neglect, in which animals are placed in a shelter until the case is resolved. Gerber can ask a judge to allow the animals to be temporarily placed in foster homes instead of the shelter. "As long as the case is going on, those animals are taking up space that other strays can't have," she says. "Sometimes the animals can be kept for 18 months in a cage. It's not fair."
In court, Gerber occasionally has to overcome the stigma of being known as an animal welfare lawyer. "Some people think I'm one of those radical people," she says. "But most of the judges are very open-minded. Some judges are animal proponents, and they want to hear about the case."
Animal welfare is a difficult area of the law. In civil cases, plaintiffs cannot sue for attorney's fees and compensation for damages is small; state law doesn't address the amount of damages that can be assessed when a pet is injured or killed. Theoretically, the damages could be based on a pet's market value, but as Reppy says, "the market value of a rescue dog is zero."
Local animal laws vary widely, including statutes governing dangerous dogs. For example, in Wake County, a dog can be deemed dangerous without biting anyone. If someone complains he or she has only felt threatened by the dog, then a judge can declare the dog is dangerous, which means it cannot live inside the owner's home. Instead, the dog must live in a chain link kennel—with a chain link roof—on a concrete pad. "I'm waiting for someone to challenge that," Gerber says.
Chapter 19a falls short of protecting pigs, cattle and chickens from cruelty and abuse. "Consumption" animals don't have the same protections against cruelty and neglect, largely due to exemptions demanded by the powerful agribusiness lobby.
Thirty-five states exempt farm animals from cruelty laws. "It doesn't mean that there isn't cruelty, only that they can't prosecute it," Tischler said. "The conditions that sows are kept in, they can only stand up or lie down. It's the equivalent of being stuck in an airline seat for life."
Gerber says North Carolina could strengthen its animal welfare laws by creating a new category of "living property." "I don't want to say animals should be people. However, they're not a table or a book or a car. If you don't take care of it, it dies," she says. "It would be nice to have an 'elevated living category' that animals could go into. It's hard for animals to have access to the courts if something bad is happening to them. I'm not saying animals should be able to sue for a bigger yard, but if something goes incredibly wrong, you should have access to the courts to make it right."