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Better Call Rosenthal, the Dog Lawyer

Richard Rosenthal is protecting animals who have historically gone underrepresented in the criminal justice system. These are his stories.

by Sean Zucker
September 23, 2022
Photo: Johnny Milano

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Legal work has gained a lot of publicity in recent years, thanks to one hell of a run on television. The Good Wife proved it can be sexy, Better Call Saul showed its darkly comedic side, and How To Get Away With Murder highlighted how easily it can be manipulated. Of course, Law & Order OGs have long known all three to be true (thank you, Dick Wolf), but that’s not the point.

What is worth noting, though, is that all these depictions miss one major hole in the current system: dog law. Historically, when a dog has been involved in an altercation or violent incident, they have been treated less than fairly. But one dedicated lawyer is actively working to correct this unfortunate trend.

Along with his wife, Robin Mittasch, Richard Rosenthal started the Lexus Project, a nonprofit that provides legal representation for dogs ordered to be euthanized. He explains to The Wildest that when it comes to dogs, determining innocence and fault is rarely as clear-cut as it is for humans.

An Unexpected Career

“Most of the time, dangerous dog law is not about the question of ‘Did the dog do it?.’ Instead, it’s focused on what caused the incident and who is responsible,” says Rosenthal. He uses an example of two dogs getting into a tussle. If a person interferes and is bitten, the case becomes more complex than one involving a single animal.

The same is true for dog-on-dog cases. According to Rosenthal, if two dogs get into a scuffle and one of them is small, such as a Chihuahua, the significantly bigger dog in the fight, such as a Pit Bull, will be found at fault.

“Nine out of 10 times, they will bring dangerous dog charges against the larger dog despite the fact that from the dog’s point of view, they were protecting themselves. Often, the smaller dog attacks them, and they just fight back,” he says.

Contrary to his passion and principled efforts, Rosenthal never planned to end up working in this field of law — let alone revolutionize it. For 30 years, he operated primarily in family and criminal law with his own practice.

One Case Changed It All

But that all changed with one case 15 years ago. As long-time lovers of the breed, Rosenthal and Mittasch came across a terrible story posted to a Greyhound message board. A Greyhound, Lexus, who was about a week retired from racing, was taken to a park in Rhode Island. While there, an owner of a six-month-old Pomeranian thought it would be cute to let their puppy run with the big dogs. 

“You have to understand that, to Greyhounds, they don’t think they’re racing when they’re running — they’re hunting. And when you put a small furry rodent on the ground in front of them running, they have a name for it. It’s called prey,” tells Rosenthal. Sadly, the Greyhound reacted precisely in that fashion and snatched the puppy in their mouth, ultimately killing the Pomeranian.

Initially, the court was willing to let Lexus live if her owner built a cement bunker in his backyard and kept her in there for the rest of her life, except to go to the vet. He refused for numerous reasons, including cost, so Lexus was scheduled to be put down. Despite not being based in Rhode Island and having no experience with animal law, Rosenthal put together a defense and was able to save the dog — even if the court permitted it with a snarl.

“I got my first get out-of-town-by-sundown order, which read that I, as an officer of the court, were to travel to Rhode Island, take possession of the dog from animal control, and remove her from the state by the most direct route without stopping — never to return,” he remembers. “I assumed the last part referred only to the dog, but I’m not 100 percent sure.”

The Work Continues

Rosenthal now practices animal law full time because, in his words, “The more we did it, the more we realized how underserved this issue was.” However, much of the response to his work remains ominous.

“The people who are anti-Pit Bull hate me,” he says before detailing how he routinely receives hate mail — and occasionally death threats. But none of that has deferred Rosenthal from defending dogs who need help. In fact, he takes upwards of 30 cases a year operating out of his offices on Long Island and often saves animals from being put down.

Unfortunately, some of the system’s most detrimental players are those who are meant to protect it. According to Rosenthal, it’s fairly common for police to shoot dogs when called in for incidents — and it’s generally unjustified and unnecessary. “For the most part, what you see in those cases is people who piss themselves at the mere sight of a dog. And giving them a gun and the freedom to shoot is not the most brilliant move,” he says.

Rosenthal adds that it’s similarly typical in these situations for a cop to report the dog as a Pit Bull and state that they are afraid for their life, regardless of the dog’s actual breed. This may not be surprising to anyone who’s been following Pit Bulls’ treatment and the misinterpretation of their breed, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.

That’s not to say Rosenthal’s efforts have gone entirely unnoticed or unappreciated. He’s received plenty of encouraging press coverage and has helped inspire newfound interest in animal law and the desire to manage it justly. Rosenthal tells me he’s even been pitched reality shows covering his caseload — which he’s declined. “I don’t see that format as advancing what I do,” he responds. 

So, what should we — and hopefully, the courts — take away from his work? In short, as Rosenthal says, “Essentially, animal law should require the same nuance as human law.”

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Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker is a contributor at The Wildest, whose work has also been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He recently adopted a Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and behavioral issues rival his own.