The case in court involved the killing of a Pomeranian at a greyhound park in Rhode Island named Lexus. The prosecution wanted the death penalty, and defense attorney Richard Rosenthal was there to stop it.
It soon became clear that the defense was ready to exhaust all possible legal means to free the greyhound – making it a “federal case”, in Rosenthal’s words. So Lexus was granted a stay of execution, but Rosenthal ordered his greyhound out of the state “by the most direct route without stopping, never to return.” It was his first job as a dog attorney and what he called his first “sundown order.” It would be the first of many.
As an animal attorney for more than a decade, Rosenthal has handled control cases, sued veterinary clinics for malpractice, and specialized in defending dangerous dogs. In doing so, he often angers local officials, animal control officers and district attorneys. But even animal rights groups expressed their dismay.
“I’m a hired gun,” Rosenthal said, acknowledging his reputation as a lawyer who petitions to get dogs off death row. “If I take a job, it is to win. I accept it because I believe in it.”
The case of the Lexus greyhound was a turning point for Rosenthal. After that, he and his wife, Robin Mittash, founded the Lexus Project in 2009, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation for euthanized dogs. It turns out there is a market for his services. He soon received a phone call about Luna, a husky that had been ordered to be put down for killing chickens. He was called to Connecticut to protect a golden retriever named Buddy.
This incident was dramatized in local newspapers. Buddy had knocked down the old woman and wanted Buddy, the woman’s son, to fall. The Lexus Project issued a high-profile response on Facebook, posting images of the gates of Auschwitz emblazoned on the city seal of Milford, Connecticut (“I can’t say enough bad things about Connecticut,” Rosenthal said. “They’ve never met a dog they didn’t want to kill.”) Judge Buddy granted a reprieve, provided Lexus Project removed the dog from Connecticut immediately.
Word spread around. Cases began to flood from all over the country. One in particular inspired Rosenthal to give up 30 years of family and criminal law practice to enter animal law full time.
It’s not a remotely feel-good story. The case involved a giant dog named Onion, a 120-pound mastiff-Rhodesian range mix in Nevada. The child killed the onion owner’s 1-year-old grandson after tripping and startling the sleeping dog. Rosenthal and a local attorney argued that the dog was not vicious, but reacted when any animal was scared. The case went to the Nevada Supreme Court. There, the child’s grandmother made it clear that she did not want the dog euthanized; Despite losing a grandson, he had a strong attachment to the dog when he was diagnosed with cancer. Ultimately, the state dropped the case rather than force the grieving family to appear in court, and Onion was sent to a rescue sanctuary in Colorado.
“In the case of the onion, it was an unfortunate accident,” Rosenthal said. “It was a terrible tragedy. But there was nothing wrong with it.”
In such cases, Rosenthal uses the same ruthless legal argument every time. He allows that it is a tragedy when a dog injures or kills another dog, or worse, a human; but he says all circumstances must be considered before euthanizing a dog. It’s a position that doesn’t always play well with the public. “With the Onion, we got hate mail,” he said. “We received death threats”
The history of animal rights in the United States can largely be traced back to a landmark case filed in 1972 by constitutional lawyer Henry Holzer, which sought to end kosher slaughter, claiming that cattle were not rendered unconscious before slaughter. Holzer lost the case, but it was the start of a new wave of lawsuits protecting the interests of animals, not just a person’s interest in an animal.
Soon after, Helen Jones, founder of the Humane Society of the United States, tried to close three New York City zoos. In 1975, the first animal law class was offered at Seton Hall Law School in New Jersey. The specialty quickly expanded to address animal abuse, laboratory testing, captive animals, wildlife, and companion animals. In 1979, a network of animal lawyers formed the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which focused on both litigation and advocacy. ALDF currently has over 2,600 pro bono lawyer members.
Today, animal rights are expanding rapidly. More than 160 law schools in the United States offer at least one animal law class; Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon has the most extensive program with 25 animal law courses. More law schools are matching: In 2021, Harvard Law School’s Animal Law and Policy program received a $10 million endowment. Last month, George Washington University Law School and the Animal Legal Defense Fund teamed up to launch a new animal rights program.
Thompson Page, an animal attorney in Connecticut, regularly serves as co-counsel with Rosenthal (licensed to practice only in New York and several federal districts). He and Rosenthal founded the Animal Litigation Center, a nonprofit network of lawyers around the country who work pro bono on animal-related cases, such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
“Every day is David versus Goliath,” Pey said. “We are civil rights advocates for four-legged creatures.”
The two men have been friends for years, and Page says Rosenthal has a “creative legal mind” with a deep understanding of the law and how to apply it. Endangered species and farm animals often receive the most legal attention and some degree of public sympathy, Page notes.
However, Page notes that he and Rosenthal occupy an unpopular position in animal rights: “Who do you think wants to represent a pit bull that bites someone?” Rosenthal manages to find judges eager to go over the details of the case in what Page says can be hours of “exciting conversation,” many of whom are eager to dismiss dog claims as frivolous.
While some animal rights activists consider Rosenthal an ally, she knows she’s made enemies along the way. He says local government officials, law enforcement and opposing attorneys don’t like him. But that’s part of the job, Page says. “We are hated,” he said. “We are Darth Vader.”
Both Rosenthal and Page expressed distrust of law enforcement. “All of a sudden it got to the point where when a police officer shot a dog, the first description of the dog was that it was a pit bull, no matter what the dog was,” Rosenthal said. (The Justice Department estimates that police officers kill 10,000 domestic dogs each year.) Historically, animal control officers, once called “dog catchers,” have generally held low-paying, low-level positions. Rosenthal may be willing to draw comparisons to Darth Vader, but he’s keeping the modern houndsman at an even lower level. “Let’s be serious,” he said. “Nobody becomes an animal control officer for the fame, the money, or the big respect.”
But the business has evolved, and animal control officers, now often considered part of law enforcement, have significant influence over what happens when a dog bite is reported. When a dog is ordered to kill, they are often key defense witnesses. “We want animal control officers to really be trained in dog behavior so they understand why and when dogs fight,” he said.
“There are documented cases where a smaller dog initiates an attack,” Rosenthal said. “You can’t expect a dog to respond in proportion.” He describes the case of a greyhound that jumped from its owner’s lap and killed a dog in his lap, which ran barking towards the greyhound. He was able to prove that the small dog initiated the interaction, citing the Illinois court’s claim that provocation must be viewed from the dog’s perspective and use a “reasonable dog standard.” The case has been terminated.
“To break the ice, my normal first solution is if you want to take the kill command from the dog and give it back to the owner, I’ll serve it,” Rosenthal said. He wasn’t exactly laughing, but he was joking.
Leaning back in a chair in his Long Island basement office, Rosenthal comfortably discusses the gnarly cases he’s worked on, sliding on poles against bad dog owners, opposing attorneys and judges. On a judge he worked for: “You could put his legal argument on a pin and still find room for the angels to dance.”
The office looks like a typical lawyer’s office – except for the large greyhound statue next to his phone, the greyhound hanging on the wall and dozens of framed greyhound pictures. As he recounted the story of saving the Lexus, Rosenthal became unusually emotional. It just so happened that one of his greyhounds died last week.
Rosenthal and his wife, Mittasch, are well known in the greyhound adoption community. In addition to founding Project Lexus, Rosenthal is a licensed pilot who tells stories of using his private plane, a single-engine ex-military Navion F, to transport dozens of dogs from shelters to adopters. He also flew with Pilots N Paws, an organization that recruits private pilots to help transport rescued animals. However, it no longer performs these transport missions. In 2017, Rosenthal was the sole survivor of a plane crash in Long Island that killed two other passengers. The animal was not killed, but it did not fly after the accident.
Rosenthal estimates he receives 20 to 30 animal cases a year. Aside from doing general consulting work for several doctors’ offices on Long Island, Rosenthal’s money is in pet sitting cases. “Animal custody starts at around five grand and can reach ridiculous figures when two sides have two lawyers ready to fight,” he said.
But being a dog advocate has its pitfalls. Courts generally do not grant animals habeas corpus or the right to a trial—a significant barrier to animal litigation. A recent high-profile case involving Happy, an elephant at the Bronx Zoo, brought the issue of personhood into the public eye and tested the limits of applying human rights to animals. Lawyers from the Non-Human Rights Project, representing Happy, argued that the elephant recognized its reflection in the mirror and that it had self-awareness and consciousness and should be released from captivity to an elephant sanctuary. The New York Court of Appeals rejected the argument in a 5-2 decision, saying Happy is not a person, at least not in the legal sense.
This is where progressive animal rights theories and Rosenthal’s approach diverge. He draws a distinction between successful litigation and animal law advocacy, an endeavor he considers an “intellectual pursuit.”
“I’m an animal rights freak in the sense that the holy grail of animal law is declaring animals to be something other than mere property,” he said. “What I’m arguing and disputing are strict notions of ownership.” Suing animals as property may seem counter to the ideal of fighting for their rights, but it is often the most effective way to save a dog’s life.
Unlike the long-running case for the personhood and release of Happiness, Rosenthal’s approach to animal law is relevant. He said he did not have time to convince the court of the identity of the animal. “The difference is, in my case, there’s a dog or a cat that’s going to die if I don’t win,” he said. “So, as far as I’m concerned, I should win the fight.”
This article was originally published by The New York Times. Used with permission.