This dog lawyer doesn’t care that you hate him


The case before the court involved a Rhode Island greyhound named Lexus, accused of killing a Pomeranian in a dog park. The prosecution was asking for the death penalty, and a lawyer for the defense, Richard Rosenthal, was there to stop it.

It soon became clear that the defense was prepared to exhaust every possible legal means to free the greyhound — to turn it, in Rosenthal’s words, into a “federal case.” So Lexus was granted a stay of execution, but on the condition that Rosenthal remove the greyhound from the state “by the most direct route without stopping, never to return.” This was his first case as a dog lawyer, and what he calls his first “get-out-of-town-by-sundown order.” It would be the first of many.

As an animal attorney for more than a decade, Rosenthal takes on custody cases, sues veterinary clinics for malpractice and has made a specialty of defending dangerous dogs. In doing so, he often enrages local officials, animal control officers and district attorneys. But even animal rights groups have expressed frustration with him.

“I’m a hired gun,” Rosenthal said, acknowledging his reputation as the go-to lawyer to get dogs off death row. “If I take a case, it’s about winning. I take it because I believe in it.”

Lexus the greyhound’s case was a turning point for Rosenthal. After that, he and his wife, Robin Mittasch, founded the Lexus Project in 2009, a nonprofit that provides legal representation for dogs ordered to be euthanized. It turned out there was a market for his services. He soon received a phone call about Luna, a husky ordered to be put down for killing chickens. He was called to Connecticut to defend a golden retriever named Buddy.

That case played out dramatically in the local papers. Buddy had knocked down an older woman, and the woman’s son wanted Buddy put down. The Lexus Project issued an over-the-top response on Facebook, posting images of the gates of Auschwitz superimposed over the town seal of Milford, Connecticut. (“I can’t say enough bad things about Connecticut,” Rosenthal said. “They’ve never met a dog they didn’t want to kill.”) A judge granted Buddy a reprieve, provided the Lexus Project removed the dog from Connecticut immediately.

Word got around. Cases began flooding in from around the country. One in particular inspired Rosenthal to abandon his 30-year family and criminal law practice to go into animal law full time.

It is not remotely a feel-good story. The case involved an enormous dog in Nevada named Onion, a 120-pound mastiff-Rhodesian ridgeback mix. Onion killed his owner’s 1-year-old grandson after the child stumbled and startled the sleeping dog. Rosenthal and a local lawyer argued that the dog was not vicious but had reacted the way any animal might when startled. The case went to the Nevada Supreme Court. There, the child’s grandmother made it clear she didn’t want the dog euthanized; despite losing her grandson, she had a strong attachment to the dog, which she adopted as a puppy when she received a cancer diagnosis. Eventually, the county dropped the case rather than force the grieving family to appear in court, and Onion was sent to a rescue sanctuary in Colorado.

“In Onion’s case, it was an unfortunate accident,” Rosenthal said. “It was a horrible tragedy. But there was nothing vicious about it.”

In such cases, Rosenthal employs the same dispassionate legal argument every time. He allows that it is a tragedy when a dog injures or kills another dog or, worse, a person; but he says all circumstances must be considered before the dog is euthanized. It’s a position that doesn’t always play well with the public. “​With Onion, we got hate mail,” he said. “We got death threats.”

The history of animal law in the United States can be reasonably traced to a landmark 1972 case brought by a constitutional lawyer named Henry Holzer, who sought to end kosher slaughter, a practice that he argued did not render livestock unconscious before killing them. Holzer lost the case, but it was the beginning of a new wave of lawsuits that protected the interests of animals, rather than simply a person’s interest in relation to an animal.


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