Dog Fight

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

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.


PROHIBITIONS on particular breeds of dogs are proposed every year or two across the country, usually after a high-profile attack, such as the 2007 death in Minneapolis of a 7-year-old boy from a pit bull. Elected officials are pressured to respond, and usually do so by vowing to rid the streets of pit bulls or Akitas or Rottweilers or some other frequently offending breed.

The Minneapolis ordinance targeted pit bulls. They needed to be muzzled, kept inside or confined in permanent enclosures, and kept on a short leash when away from home. Noncompliant dogs could be seized or destroyed.

Tanick felt that by focusing on a dog’s breed instead of its behavior, the ordinance discriminated against responsible dog owners. “I was stunned to see how poorly drafted it was,” he recalls. The language could be construed to “encompass any canine with four legs and a tail,” he complained in a commentary published in the Star Tribune. He filed suit on behalf of five local pet owners—two of them dog wardens who happened to own pit bulls—arguing that the rule was too broad to be enforceable and gave authorities too much power to euthanize dogs.

On the eve of the trial, Tanick received some serendipitous national publicity. He was staging a press conference in St. Paul when he realized that Spanky McFarland, a star of the old Our Gang movies, which featured a pet pit bull, was in town. McFarland agreed to join Tanick on the steps of the state capitol as a spokesman for the cause.

At the trial, Tanick wanted to bring two dozen dogs into the courtroom and ask a number of witnesses to pick out those that matched the law’s definition of a pit bull. The judge, however, took a dim view of this approach. So Tanick instead took the dogs to a professional photographer and had giant portraits made, which he then presented in court. “We asked three different Animal Control people [to identify the breeds] and they gave three wildly different answers,” he says with a triumphant laugh.

Tanick won the case, the ordinance was struck down, and the city was ultimately ordered to pay $25,000 in legal fees. In a postscript to that case, Minnesota passed a law prohibiting cities from passing breed-specific laws. Tanick went on to serve as the American Dog Owners Association’s national counsel. Minnesota, he says, became “ground zero” for pet law.

TODAY, PET CASES COMPRISE about one-fifth of Tanick’s practice. (Only a few are dog-bite cases.) He has frequently written about pet law, until recently penning a legal column for Dog World magazine called “Laws and Paws.” He does some pro-bono and reduced-rate animal-law work, and represents a number of pet-owners’ advocacy groups. But he also has many individual clients. “Some people are willing and able to pay significant legal fees when their pets are involved,” he says.

Tanick’s cases, however, rarely yield a bright, shining line between right and wrong. Take that client who considered her basement a dog sanctuary. She’s a hero to some, but the Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley classifies her actions as hoarding, a form of animal cruelty. Tanick showed up for her hearing with a compromise that was more or less acceptable to everyone involved. Some of the dogs would go to the Humane Society, which would put them up for adoption; others would go to prearranged homes.

Animal law now commands respect thanks in part to Tanick’s handling of it. Three of Minnesota’s four law schools teach it and the state bar association has a standing section dedicated to the practice. About a dozen local attorneys regularly take cases involving pets, though no one yet makes a living solely practicing animal law.

In the end, what’s most gratifying to Tanick is advancing the protections the law affords animals themselves. Animals, he says, have been treated in law as second-class citizens. “They have feelings, they can suffer,” he says. “They should have rights.” It won’t be long, Tanick posits, before courts begin to recognize that animals have rights independent from those of their owners. “The idea was scoffed at 20 years ago,” he says. “Ten years ago, people started paying attention, and now they’re taking it seriously.”

Beth Hawkins is a writer-at-large for Minnesota Monthly.