N.C. Law Allows Group to Sue over Alleged Dog Abuse

Leaders of a California animal rights group have traveled to North Carolina to take advantage of a state law allowing civil suits for animal abuse cases. The group is suing breeders it says are mistreating dogs. Leoneda Inge of member station WUNC reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In North Carolina, animal rights activists are using a little-known law to bring civil suits against people they say are abusing animals. It's the only state in the country that has such a law, and that's got the attention of animal rights activists from California. They've traveled to North Carolina to bring a test case against dog breeders. From member station WUNC, Leoneda Inge reports.

LEONEDA INGE reporting:

An old, dilapidated warehouse is now a big doggy day care in Sanford, North Carolina.

(Soundbite of barking)

INGE: Dogs jump and bark as people walk between rows of 10-by-10-foot open-top cages. In recent weeks, this makeshift kennel has housed nearly 300 dogs.

Ms. JOYCE TISCHLER (Executive Director, Animal Legal Defense Fund): Say hello. See, they're a little bit shy when you get in with them. They're a little shy. Come here, guys, come here. Say hello.

INGE: They used to be the property of Robert and Barbara Woodley, but today these dogs are in the temporary custody of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. After several veterinarians testified, a judge ruled that the dogs were being abused. Many of the dogs reportedly lived in cramped cages, stacked high in a mobile home on the Woodleys' property. These dogs suffered from numerous infections from living for long periods in their own waste.

Ms. TISCHLER: He's pretty much blind.

INGE: Joyce Tischler is executive director for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. She says this Boston terrier lost his sight because of ammonia fumes that filled his cage at the Woodleys'.

Ms. TISCHLER: When Bruce was first brought here, he was completely scared, stuck to himself, hardly moved around. He just seemed trapped in his own body.

INGE: The Animal Legal Defense Fund used a 1969 North Carolina law to fight the Woodleys. It's called the Civil Remedy for the Protection of Animals. It allows anyone, a citizen or an advocacy group, to bring a civil suit in district court. Duke Law School Professor William Reppy is an expert on animal rights. Reppy says the one-of-a-kind statute can bring immediate relief in animal abuse cases when prosecutors are still pondering the evidence.

Professor WILLIAM REPPY (Duke University Law School): So the district attorney in the other states has to bring a criminal prosecution, and if he doesn't do it, it doesn't--nothing happens. So if a DA doesn't bring it in North Carolina, a citizen can say, `OK, I want to bring a suit.'

INGE: The Woodleys aren't talking anymore. They're represented by Sanford attorney George Whitaker. Whitaker says his clients are devastated over having their animals taken away and will appeal. Whitaker says he'll argue that out-of-state activist groups don't have a right to file civil suits in cases like this one.

Mr. GEORGE WHITAKER (Attorney): Even though the statute says basically anyone can do this, the Constitution of the state of North Carolina specifically provides that there shall be a civil action for the redress of private wrongs. And it's our contention that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has no private wrong here; therefore, doesn't have any standing to bring this case at all.

INGE: North Carolina's Court of Appeals will likely have the last word. Until that time comes, Joyce Tischler says the Animal Legal Defense Fund will fight for the dogs until the end.

Ms. TISCHLER: I can tell you over my dead body will these dogs go back to the Woodleys. They have suffered enough. They should not be put back into the hands of people who have no capacity to humanely treat animals.

INGE: While the appeal process is under way, the dogs are in limbo. They can't be spayed or neutered. The sickest ones can't be euthanized, and they can't be officially adopted either. Currently more than 100 dogs are living with foster families.

For NPR News, I'm Leoneda Inge in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

BRAND: DAY TO DAY returns in a moment. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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