With his sad brown eyes and soft, floppy ears, Marley, a 2-year-old Boxer, is the kind of dog that's hard to resist. Just ask his co-owner Ashley Wilson, a music director at a Seattle rock station. After splitting up with her live-in boyfriend, Todd Templeton, just before Christmas last year, Wilson and Templeton exchanged Marley informally every week. Then, last August, according to a lawsuit filed by Wilson, Templeton abruptly ended the arrangement and kept Marley.
Instead of giving up or just getting a new dog, Wilson joined the growing ranks of animal lovers who are filing lawsuits over their pets. After consulting Adam Karp, a lawyer in Bellingham, Wash., who says he has handled about 100 animal-related cases in the past four years, Wilson filed suit in late October. She has already won at least a temporary victory. Last month a superior court judge ordered the exchanges to resume immediately, pending a final ruling. (Templeton declined to comment on the case.) About seeing Marley for the first time in three months, Wilson says, "His tail was wiggling out of control. I just hugged him and started to cry."
While going to court to resolve a pet- custody dispute may seem extreme, it is just one of the legal options available to protect animals and the people who care for them. Veterinary-malpractice suits, pet-cruelty cases and even landlord-tenant disputes over animals are reaching the courts as well. In New York City, Cindy Adams, a gossip columnist for the New York Post, has called for legislation that would ensure better conditions at dog kennels after her Yorkshire terrier Jazzy died, allegedly at a kennel. Some 23 states now allow enforceable pet trusts, in which people set aside money in their will for the care of their pet. And when it comes to animal cruelty, more than 40 states have felony-level charges that virtually ensure jail time for serious offenders. "The courts are beginning to realize that the bond between humans and animals is very powerful," says Steven Wise, a lawyer and animal-rights advocate who has written two books and taught a Harvard Law School course on the subject.
Some pet cases have reaped surprisingly large awards. Marc Bluestone of Sherman Oaks, Calif., won a $39,000 jury award last February after Shane, his mixed-breed Labrador retriever, valued by the court at $10, died just days after coming home from a two-month stay in a pet clinic. Although the suit took five years, cost more than $300,000 in legal fees and is on appeal, Bluestone says it was all worth it: "I can't get my baby back, but I did get justice."
Once the domain solely of activists, animal law has steadily gained respect among law schools and legal scholars since 2000, when Wise's first book, Rattling the Cage, provided an academic argument for granting legal rights to animals. Now some 40 law schools offer courses on the topic. Cass Sunstein, professor at the University of Chicago Law School, explains the appeal in ethical terms: "There is a universal agreement that animal suffering matters. Even those who think they despise the notion of animal rights think that suffering and cruelty are problems."