By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Veterinary malpractice, wrongful canine death, lawsuits against unethical breeders—the legal system is going to the dogs.
Attorney Yolanda Eisenstein specializes in "animal law." So far, she's the only lawyer in Dallas whose practice focuses on the rights, needs and welfare of pets.
Like hotel queen Leona Helmsley, you want to leave $25 million in your will for the care of your schnoodle? Eisenstein will draw up a pet trust. She represents people going through bloody divorces in which who gets the Maine coon cat is as important as who has custody of the kids. Dogs barking all night? Sue the neighbors instead of tossing and turning.
"It's like a general law office, but all my cases involve animals," Eisenstein says. "It's a sub-specialty that's developing in law. The State Bar of Texas has an animal law section, and a lot of law schools are teaching it. Animals have been elevated to such a level of importance in our society."
Problem pet-owners and a runaway pet population are the targets of proposed ordinances to be presented April 2 to the Dallas City Council. Willie McDaniel, division manager for Dallas Animal Services, expects controversy, especially over a proposed ordinance that requires all cats and dogs to be spayed or neutered, except for owners with breeder permits. In recent years, the number of impounded animals in Dallas has topped 30,000 annually.
"If you have as many loose and stray animals as we do in Dallas, you have to do something," McDaniel says.
Eisenstein got involved in representing pets and their owners as an extension of her interest in doing nonprofit work. Part of her practice involves lobbying for passage of anti-cruelty laws and writing contracts for animal rescuers, as she did recently for a bird rescue group.
"I thought maybe the time was right," says Eisenstein, who opened her office on Ross Avenue in September. "There are certainly a lot of animal issues in the news right now. Puppy mills are very big right now, with indiscriminate breeders breeding thousands and thousands of puppies."
A current case on Eisenstein's docket is a wrongful death lawsuit against a pest control company after rat poison killed a customer's dog.
Emergency planning for animals is another big issue. What happens to your pet if something unexpected happens to you?
"The state Legislature wrote a law saying that a pet trust—a fund to care for your pet if you die—is legal in the state of Texas," Eisenstein says.
A will designating who gets Puddles may not be enough. "People have good intentions, but are those people able and willing to provide long-term homes?" Eisenstein says. "Sometimes wills are not probated for several days. What happens in the interim? We can do a will or a pet trust or a gift." Animal lovers can work with an organization like the SPCA to provide continuing care instead of leaving the pet's destiny up to chance.
Eisenstein says that animal law divides generally into two camps: animal welfare camp and the animal rights camp.
"Some of the animal rights groups think the only progress you can make is giving them [animals] full rights," Eisenstein says. For example, an animal rights group might file lawsuits against a slaughterhouse.
But the bottom line in Texas law is that animals are possessions, like cars and TVs.
"When you sue someone for the death or loss or injury to your pet, the courts have to attach a value to them," Eisenstein says. "We're still in a situation where pets are property. The money is not there in terms of [damages for] mental anguish and pain and suffering. I have had some cases where I decided not to take them. I might have felt the money they were going to spend to litigate this wasn't going to be worth it."
Most common are the dogs-will-be-dogs cases. Dogs are more likely to bark, bite and burrow out of their yards than other pets.
"I've had dog-barking cases, where a client has tried to resolve an issue and finally went to the lawyer," Eisenstein says. "You'd think you could resolve that without going to a lawyer. I want people to be more responsible with their pets."
Owners may find themselves facing a "dog running at large" code violation of leash laws or, in the case of an aggressive dog that mauls a child, a more serious violation. Eisenstein recently attended a symposium called "legislating dangerous dogs."
Then there are breeder issues. "The person who buys a puppy has certain expectations, and the breeder has made certain representations," Eisenstein says. Maybe the animal has health problems or is not bred to the standard represented. "There may be promises that were made on either side that weren't fulfilled."
Eisenstein may have pet lovers lined up out the door. The proposed animal ordinances are sure to please some pet owners—and rile just as many.
McDaniel says the most recent version of one ordinance limits the number of cats and dogs to five per single-family home; those with more will have to obtain permits as rescuers or fosters. (Current pets will be "grandfathered" in.) Breeders will have to pay a $500 fee for a permit and will be barred from areas zoned residential.