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On a cold and rainy morning in April, Bruce Wagman drove up to a one-story brick house outside Sanford, N.C. With him were two police cruisers and several animal control vans. TV crews were waiting out front to film Wagman’s mission: freeing 200 dogs. After a four-month battle, Wagman, a partner at Morgenstein & Jubelirer, had won an injunction to remove the dogs from the property, about 30 miles southwest of Raleigh. Although he’d seen photographs and heard testimony about their condition, he said he was stunned when he walked through the door. “Nothing prepared us for what we saw,” Wagman said. The animals were surrounded by piles of garbage and excrement, he said. Several dogs were nearly blind from ammonia fumes from urine that had soaked into the wooden floors. One dog’s jawbone was broken, the teeth all rotted out. A miniature pinscher laying in its own waste tried to rise but was too weak to stand. A litter of Boston terrier puppies trapped in a wooden shipping crate were being eaten alive by beetles. “It was the greatest moment of my career, maybe my life, when I pulled these dogs out and knew I’d saved them from a life of hell and misery,” Wagman said. An attorney for Barbara and Robert Woodley, the dogs’ owners, disputes that the animals were in such dire straits. “I think that was a gross exaggeration of what they saw,” said Norman Post, of Sanford, Calif.’s Staton, Perkinson, Doster, Post & Silverman. He acknowledged that the ammonia levels in the house were high but said many of the dogs were old and suffered from eye disorders related to age. Wagman has made a career out of protecting animals from abuse. While he spends about 20 percent of his time handling product liability defense and labor and employment litigation, the remainder is devoted to animal cases. Many of these assignments are for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, for which he serves as litigation director. The San Francisco attorney got into the field 13 years ago after attending a break-out session on animal law at an American Bar Association conference. ALDF executive director and co-founder Joyce Tischler was one of the speakers and her description of animal abuse haunted Wagman. “I walked out deciding this was what I was going to do with my life,” he said. “It was the only epiphany I’ve ever had.” Wagman, who’d just finished a year clerking for Judge William Orrick, began looking for a firm that would allow him to pursue a niche practice in animal law. While Morgenstein & Jubelirer is focused on business litigation, he said the firm welcomed the idea. Wagman’s animal work was initially pro bono, but now they are all paid cases. He also teaches animal law at local law schools. The field has grown significantly over the last decade. Wagman said there were only five or six courses being taught when he started teaching in 1997 — now there are about 40 around the country. Wagman co-authored “Animal Law,” the first case book for animal law classes, which is now in its third edition. Tischler said Wagman’s ability to develop new legal theories has been invaluable for the ALDF. “He is a gifted, highly competent litigator who is also passionately dedicated to protecting animals,” she said. “It’s the kind of combination we don’t come across often, so we love working with Bruce.” Wagman, who has three dogs and four cats at his house in Stinson Beach, doesn’t usually interact with the animals whose interests he represents. He recently sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture for failing to adopt a policy to assure that chimpanzees used in research receive psychological stimulation. Without it, he said, the animals go crazy. The Northern District of California ruled that the ALDF did not have standing to sue and the case is now on appeal at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Also pending is a suit against the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy for failure to comply with environmental laws in the slaughter of thousands of pigs on Santa Cruz Island. He has also pursued cases on behalf of wild horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management. No case, though, has been as dramatic or rewarding as the North Carolina rescue. The Woodleys, a couple in their 60s, had been breeding and selling dogs for more than two decades. Wagman said Barbara Woodley, the primary owner, suffered from hoarding disease, a psychological disorder in which a person compulsively collects vast quantities of junk or — in Woodley’s case — dogs. Neighbors had been unable to get the local animal control department to take action against the Woodleys, so they turned to the ALDF for help. North Carolina has a statute — the only one in the country — that allows people to bring a civil suit for animal cruelty. When the ALDF sought an injunction, the Woodleys had 450 dogs. The couple gave away 150 before the ALDF won an injunction on Dec. 30 allowing it to remove dogs at immediate risk. In the following weeks, veterinarian Laureen Bartfield rescued 100 dogs living in the Woodleys’ house, nearby trailer and five kennel runs. And for three-and-a-half months she went daily to the property to monitor the condition of the remaining dogs. It was a devastating job. Bartfield said she watched in anguish as a litter of puppies died one at a time. She said other dogs were dying from flea infestation and freezing in the kennels. “I would call Bruce in tears saying, ‘It’s not fair. You can’t ask me to keep doing this.’” But she stuck with the animals until a judge issued a permanent injunction April 13 authorizing the removal of the remaining 200 dogs. The judge combined the ALDF’s civil suit with a criminal suit brought by a local animal control authorities. He found the Woodleys guilty of animal cruelty charges in the criminal case. The Woodleys are appealing both cases. Post, their attorney, said they are challenging the ALDF’s standing in the civil case. He contends that the organization is making a profit from the litigation. “There are billboards all around the country saying ‘please donate money to ALDF,’” Post said. “It’s a money-making thing for this crowd.” Wagman said his crew converted an abandoned furniture warehouse into a kennel where more than a dozen veterinarians and veterinarian students examined and treated the dogs. Wagman now oversees the kennel, dubbed the Hall of Hope. “Bruce is one of the most intense people I’ve ever met in my life,” Bartfield said. “When we pulled the dogs out he was crying with the rest of us.” Wagman and his colleagues are talking to lobbyists to get other states to enact laws allowing civil suits against animal abusers. Now only criminal cases can be brought by state prosecutors who, Wagman said, lack the time and resources. Wagman had the support of 100 veterinarians and vet technicians and more than 300 volunteers who came in to take care of the dogs. “They are the real heroes of this case,” Wagman said. “I just came in and got it going.”

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