Nation & World

A horse was neglected by its owner. Now the horse is suing.

Justice, front, shares a pasture in Estacada, Ore., with three other rescued horses: Lincoln, Badger and Flick.
Justice, front, shares a pasture in Estacada, Ore., with three other rescued horses: Lincoln, Badger and Flick. The Washington Post

Justice is an 8-year-old American quarter horse who used to be named Shadow. And when he was named Shadow, he suffered. At a veterinarian’s exam last year, he was 300 pounds underweight, his black coat lice-ridden, his skin scabbed and his genitals so frostbitten that they might still require amputation.

The horse had been left outside and underfed by his previous owner, who last summer pleaded guilty to criminal neglect. And now Justice, who today resides with other rescued equines on a quiet wooded farm within view of Oregon’s Cascade mountains, is suing his former owner for negligence. In a lawsuit filed in his new name in a county court, the horse seeks at least $100,000 for veterinary care, as well as damages “for pain and suffering,” to fund a trust that would stay with him no matter who is his caretaker.

The complaint is the latest bid in a quixotic quest to get courts to recognize animals as plaintiffs, something supporters and critics alike say would be revolutionary. The few previous attempts - including a recent high-profile case over whether a monkey can own a copyright - have failed, with judges ruling in various ways that the nonhumans lacked legal standing to sue. But Justice’s case, the animal rights lawyers behind it contend, is built on court decisions and statutes that give it a stronger chance, particularly in a state with some of the nation’s most progressive animal protection laws.

“There have been a lot of efforts to try to get animals not only to be protected but to have the right to go to court when their rights are violated,” said Matthew Liebman, director of litigation at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which filed the suit in Justice’s name. Those “haven’t found the right key to the courthouse door. And we’re hopeful that this is the key.”

These efforts have been made amid broad growth in legal protections and advocacy for animals. Three decades ago, few law schools offered courses in animal law; now, more than 150 do, and some states have created animal law prosecutorial units. All 50 states have enacted felony penalties for animal abuse. Connecticut last year became the first state to allow courts to appoint lawyers or law students as advocates in animal cruelty cases, in part because overburdened prosecutors were dismissing a majority of such cases.

These developments count as progress, animal rights lawyers say, in persuading lawmakers and courts to expand the traditional legal view of animals — as property — to reflect their role in a society in which dog-sitting is big business and divorces can involve cat custody battles.

“Our legislature acknowledged that people care a lot about animals, and that’s something that’s evolving and increasing,” said Jessica Rubin, a University of Connecticut law professor who serves as an advocate in that state’s cruelty cases. “The law, hopefully, is catching up to where our morals are.”

According to court filings, Justice’s former owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, surrendered the horse to a rescue organization in March 2017 at the urging of a neighbor in Cornelius, west of Portland. In a letter to law enforcement, an equine veterinarian who examined the horse at the time said he was “severely emaciated,” lethargic and weak. That poor condition probably contributed to a lasting problem — the animal’s penis had prolapsed, and his inability to retract it led to frostbite, trauma and infection.

“When I got him, he was a lot worse than I anticipated,” said Kim Mosiman, executive director of Sound Equine Options, which takes in and finds homes for about 100 horses each year.

Justice, whom Mosiman fondly describes as “like a grumpy old man,” has gained weight and become more social. On a sun-soaked afternoon at the dusty farm in Estacada, he nibbled grass alongside a retired racehorse named Flick and used his nose to nudge the notebook of a visiting reporter. But the lawsuit says his penis may require partial amputation and that his medical conditions will demand long-term care.

“I’m trying to find someone who wants to adopt him,” Mosiman said. “But if they find out they’re going to have to be financially responsible for him, he’s never going anywhere.”

Geordie Duckler, a Portland animal law attorney who represents Vercher, said he views the horse lawsuit as a publicity stunt, one he does not expect Oregon courts to take very seriously.

“There’s a massive chasm between saying a thing is a victim and saying now it must have rights, and the rights are apparently the full panoply of rights, and must include a right to sue,” Duckler said. “There’s no such thing as a right in a vacuum. . . . As soon as you have animal rights, then you’d better have animal jails and prosecutions against animals.”

The slippery-slope arguments are familiar to Mosiman, who calls her group an animal welfare, not animal rights, organization. When she considered Justice’s long-term needs, though, she had no qualms about signing him up as a plaintiff, she said.

“It was pretty clear-cut: If he wasn’t starved, this wouldn’t have happened,” Mosiman said as Justice languidly scratched his neck and head against a towering pine tree. “It’s about him.”