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Dog Fight

Now that our pets have daycare, psychics, and yoga instructors, Marshall Tanick wants to give them one more thing: legal rights. But is this a good idea?

Dog Fight
Photo by Todd Buchanan

(page 1 of 2)

They needed a sledgehammer to get in. The owner of the home had refused entry, and when the St. Paul Police and Animal Control officers broke through the door she took a swing at the nearest cop. In the basement, where the windows were blacked over, the officers found 11 dogs confined in filthy cages. The smell was overpowering. A dehumidifier struggled to pull moisture from the air. Many of the animals had rotting teeth, abscesses, parasites, and chronic infections. None had water.

As the animals were taken away, the owner grew hysterical; she was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul and placed on a psychiatric hold. She saw herself as a woman on a mission: to rescue dogs from shelters where they might be put down. She had brought the canines discovered in the raid—the second on her home in two years—from as far away as the Virgin Islands.

The city saw things differently: A St. Paul ordinance limits the number of adult dogs in a home to three. Animal Control wanted the dogs turned over to mainstream shelters, such as the Animal Humane Society. But many animal rescuers despise the Society for its willingness to use euthanasia.

The woman enlisted the help of Marshall Tanick, one of the nation’s preeminent practitioners of animal law. Best known in Twin Cities courtrooms for his prowess in First Amendment and employment law, Tanick has a national reputation for winning precedent-setting cases involving all kinds of creatures. He has successfully challenged a St. Paul ordinance prohibiting dogs from barking too much (but didn’t define “too much”). He once won a case on behalf of a Minneapolis woman who owned more box turtles than were permitted under local law. He has ironed out visitation rights for cat owners, quashed puppy mills, battled condo boards, and even defended the owners of an old farm near Forest Lake where exotic cats used for filming commercials were kept. His efforts have pushed Minnesota to the forefront of animal law.

Two-thirds of Americans own pets, and we treat them better than ever before. We lavish them with boots and coats and beds and toys. We organize weekends around jaunts to the dog park, take them to coffeehouses and try to take them to the office. We replace their joints as they age, and call in the behaviorist when they seem depressed.

When divorce divides a household, we grapple for custody. And if death takes us from them, we want them well-cared for. (Remember misanthropic hotel baroness Leona Helmsley? She left $12 million to her dog, a Maltese appropriately named Trouble, and billions more to animal welfare concerns, but just $6 million to her grandsons.)

But we also fight over our pets, particularly at the neighborhood level, where one person’s precious darling is the barking barrier to everyone else’s sleep or the menace that uses their lawns as a toilet. When dogs attack, we fight about whether they were provoked. When they bite a child, we demand that the offenders be destroyed and the breed outlawed.

Tanick is convinced that the legal system is fundamentally inadequate when it comes to animals. Minnesota defines animals as personal property, to be traded or disposed of with less formality than a Ford Escort. It defines humane treatment and limits owners’ rights when animals have been subject to cruelty. But it doesn’t treat them as sentient creatures.

If Tanick has his way, that will soon change.

TANICK HAS ginger-colored hair and a mustache that looks like it belongs on a British colonial. He talks fast, repeating himself in case his audience can’t keep up, and remembers virtually everything he’s told. He likes intellectual puzzles. He uses a cell phone to call associates sitting just outside his office door; it’s easy to imagine them frantically trying to keep up with the blazing speed of his brain.

His office groans under the weight of tchotchkes, photos of family members and political luminaries, team portraits and plaques recognizing service to this or that organization. There are three snapshots of his companion animals: a mini-Goldendoodle named Wadsworth, a cat named Longfellow, and a late lamented Sheltie.

Tanick grew up near North Commons Park in north Minneapolis and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in journalism in 1969. Four years later he earned a law degree at Stanford. Tanick hoped the J.D. would help him get a job as a reporter with special expertise, but he turned down the only offer he got, from the Washington Post. “I thought I would start covering the Supreme Court and work my way up,” he says. The Post offered him the Northern Virginia beat. “Bob Woodward was the name of the guy who got the job,” he cackles.

After law school, Tanick took a job clerking for a U.S. District Court judge whose docket was packed with meaty constitutional questions. He then went to work for the Minneapolis firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, where he learned that he liked litigating and being in the courtroom, where his gift for thinking on his feet has served him well. “He’s one of the best oral advocates I have ever seen,” says Burt Osborne, a friend of Tanick’s who, as a former assistant Minneapolis city attorney, has squared off with Tanick as a representative of Animal Control. “Marshall can go into court for a half-hour oral argument having not prepared anything and what comes out of his mouth is eloquent.”

By 1989, Tanick was running his own firm, Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, where First Amendment and employment law made up the backbone of his practice. Impressed by his reputation for tackling constitutional issues, the New York–based American Dog Owners Association asked Tanick if he’d be interested in challenging a Minneapolis ordinance that put restrictions on pit bull owners. So-called breed-specific laws attempting to curtail dangerous dogs were popping up all over the country. The group wanted to challenge Minneapolis’s version as a test case.

Tanick didn’t have any experience with animal-related laws, nor was he closely affiliated with animal advocates. He had never heard of the term “breed-specific.” But he did relish a constitutional puzzle, and the dog case seemed to present a good one. “Marshall will take a case because someone has a cool shirt on or says something he likes,” Osborne remarks. “He’s one of those people who gets interested in something and digs in.”

The term “dog case” is actually lawyer slang for a tedious matter, because judges often disdain cases involving pets. The suits are perceived as nuisance cases, not worthy of their time. But to someone like Tanick, intrigued by the constitutional issues at play, such cases are just the opposite.

Ordinances involving pets tend to be written at the local level, where most disputes between neighbors get sorted out, and they’re more likely to be flawed than laws drafted by legislatures.

When Tanick was presented with the breed-ban case, he needed only to read the first few constitutionally flawed clauses in the ordinance to decide he was ready to make the new rule a national example of how not to regulate dangerous dogs. Not everyone thinks Tanick chose to fight for the right side.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

Dec 10, 2009 11:40 pm
 Posted by  schnottzie

It makes me proud to be a Minnesotan! Someone has to stand up for the animals. Go, Tanick!

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