Most of the time our pets provide us with love and support, but sometimes our pets and other animals need legal support. That’s when animal lawyers step in. In this episode of The Florida Bar Podcast from the 2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention, host Karla Eckhardt talks to Ralph DeMeo, Matthew Deitz, and Gregg Morton about hot topics in animal law and the growing success of the Animal Law Section of the Florida Bar. They discuss programs the section is investing time in and the real difference they’re making in the banning of greyhound racing.
Ralph DeMeo is a shareholder at Baker Donelson with a concentrated practice on environmental and land use law.
Matthew Dietz is a founding member and current litigation director of Disability Independence Group.
Gregg Morton is chair of the Animal Law Section of The Florida Bar.
The Florida Bar Podcast
2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention: Animal Law Update
Intro: Welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, where we highlight the latest trends in law office and law practice management to help you run your law firm, brought to you by The Florida Bar’s Practice Resource Institute. You are listening to Legal Talk Network.
Karla Eckhardt: Hello and welcome to The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by The Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. This is Karla Eckhardt recording from the 2018 Annual Florida Bar Convention in Orlando, Florida. Thank you for joining us today.
Joining me today I have guests Gregg Morton and Ralph DeMeo. I am so excited. And we are going to talk about animal law. So this is particularly close to my heart. Anyway, let’s continue. Before we do that, let’s learn something about you guys.
Gregg, let’s get started.
Gregg Morton: I am the current Chair of the Animal Law Section. The Animal Law Section is two years old. I practice labor and employment law in my regular life up in Tallahassee and animal law has been a passion since I went to law school.
Karla Eckhardt: Beautiful. Ralph.
Ralph DeMeo: I am a shareholder in Baker Donelson based in Tallahassee, primarily an environmental and land use lawyer, but I have been finding myself increasingly doing animal law. I am the immediate past Chair of the Animal Law Section.
Karla Eckhardt: All right, so I am going to start out with the obvious Florida Bar hot topic and that is going to be our Puppy Pit. I just wanted to take a moment to thank the Animal Law Section as well as the Osceola County Animal Services for making that possible. For our listeners who don’t know what’s going on. We have a Puppy Pit. Our theme is Mental Health and Wellness, and puppies are available for wellness cuddles and wellness kisses and all our members are so, so happy.
So needless to say, that’s been quite a hit. And yeah, thank you. I have been a hot mess with all the puppies, but thank you.
Ralph DeMeo: You are welcome. That was the brainchild of one of our Executive Council Members, Matt Dietz.
Karla Eckhardt: Matt Dietz, you are a rock star.
Ralph DeMeo: In consultation with the Osceola County Humane Society and they have done a wonderful job and it has been a huge hit. We are hearing from Bar Associations all over the country saying that we are the envy of them and that we definitely have the coolest Bar Association.
Karla Eckhardt: That’s right, the Florida Bar Animal Law Section, rock stars, rock stars.
So next I want to talk about what I have in front of me. For our listeners, I am looking at the Animal Law Section Paw Review, that’s right, Paw Review. So that is the Animal Law Section newsletter. So tell us a little bit about your newsletter.
Gregg Morton: I would say that the cover story goes back to the Puppy Pit and part of the Bar Convention’s theme this year, Mental Health and Wellness of Lawyers, the way that the Animal Law Section thought it could contribute to that was by pointing out the advantages of having companion animals in your life to reduce stress. There is science behind it that shows mental health and actual physical health benefits of having a pet, taking walks and that sort of thing. So that’s our cover story on this Paw Review and it’s filled with all sorts of other information about animal law.
Karla Eckhardt: The title for those of you listening, it’s written by Amy Wood and it’s titled Want to Reduce Stress: Hang Out With Animals. So get your hands on a Paw review and read that article, because I will tell you it will change your life.
Ralph DeMeo: And we are very proud of it. Honestly, we are getting all kinds of great comments over it. It’s professionally produced by a commercial artist in Tallahassee and it has got beautiful photographs, full color and we really get a lot of kudos for that.
Karla Eckhardt: I can vouch for this. Again, I have a copy in front of me. Everyone that does not have a copy, go out and get one.
All right, so hot topics in animal law, let’s get started.
Gregg Morton: You want to talk a little bit about the CRC, Ralph, and then we will talk about legislation.
Ralph DeMeo: Yeah. We are so excited to be participating directly in the efforts to ban once and for all in Florida greyhound racing. It’s a cruel practice. There has been efforts for 10 years in the legislature which have failed because of unrelated political issues. We were given authority by the Board of Governors of the Florida Bar to lobby the Constitution Revision Commission which meets every 20 years.
We succeeded in getting them to put it on the ballot. Unfortunately, the Greyhound Racing Association, which is a dying breed, is challenging the constitutional amendment. It’s really a pretty weak complaint, in our opinion, but we just recently got the approval of the Board of Governors, again thank you very much, to move to intervene in that proceeding on behalf of the Animal Law Section, where we have every expectation that their efforts to stop it from going on the ballot will be defeated.
It will go on the ballot in November and so far the polling shows overwhelming support. We only need 60%; we are showing 70% of the voters that will vote in favor to end this cruel practice.
Karla Eckhardt: That’s fantastic.
Gregg Morton: And one of the things I am most proud about of our Section this year is our legislative positions we took, that was part of the reason we became a Section was so that we could take legislative positions. This was the first year that we actually took some and our lobbyists helped us pass what was called Ponce’s Law. It was a law that increases sentencing guideline points for defendants who are convicted of animal cruelty. And also an Animal Welfare Guidelines Best Practices Act that will apply to shelters so that when they intake pets, they are less likely to euthanize them before owners can come and claim them.
Ralph DeMeo: Another really exciting thing that we are doing in Tallahassee is we work very closely with the Tallahassee Memorial Hospital Pet Therapy Program and they were the first in the state; in fact, one of the first in the country to bring therapy animals into the courtroom in child dependency and other proceedings and the Second Judicial Circuit based in Tallahassee is a leader in that regard. And we support their programs and recently we went ahead and supported the creation of Stuffed Animal, a little golden retriever to honor Ricky, who was one of the very first who passed away from cancer last year and they are going to distribute thousands of these to their children.
By the way, Matt Dietz, who is standing here at the table is the brainchild behind the Puppy Pit.
Karla Eckhardt: Everyone, the rock star Matthew Dietz. He is the brainchild behind the Puppy Pit, yeah, so thank you. I just wanted to personally thank you. It’s been great; it’s been a hit, not just here but apparently throughout the country. Other Bar Associations are really getting on and jealous and hopefully we will see this everywhere.
Ralph DeMeo: I guarantee you people are going to copycat it.
Karla Eckhardt: Yeah. That’s the hope. Again, it’s been wonderful.
Ralph DeMeo: If I may mention one of our other programs.
Karla Eckhardt: Yes, go for it.
Ralph DeMeo: We are very proud of this too. We last month held in Tallahassee the first of its kind in the state Continuing Judicial Education Program on animal law for the Second Circuit judges. We had about six or seven judge show up, including Circuit Court judges, District Court of Appeal judges and administrative law judges and we trained them on animal law.
They were extremely impressed by the program, so much so that they encouraged us to go statewide to all the other circuits. And one of the judges in Tallahassee who is involved with criminal law for the Florida Bar Statewide College invited us to come to their criminal law training next summer to offer our course.
So we think education is the key even for judges. Most of them didn’t take animal law in law school, it wasn’t offered at the time and they are seeing so many cases come before them now; cruelty, dog fighting, hoarding, and they really are excited about learning from us and we are excited to provide that to them.
Karla Eckhardt: What a successful Law Section. I am really — this is fantastic. The Paw Review and all the progress you are making. So I want to take a moment and welcome Matthew Dietz. He is now ready to speak, just tell us a little bit about yourself.
Matthew Dietz: I am a Litigation Director of a Disability Advocacy Center in Miami, Florida. And our animal connection, a lot of what we do deals with human animal interaction with persons with disabilities. So I have been practicing in this area for the past 10 years or 15 years helping people with disabilities and their animals.
Karla Eckhardt: Beautiful. This is fantastic. Thank you guys so much for what you do. Anything else you want to talk about?
Gregg Morton: Matt won’t toot his own horn, but not only is he the mastermind of the Puppy Pit, but he is going to be our Chair-Elect coming up.
Karla Eckhardt: Congratulations.
Gregg Morton: And he is also receiving, among numerous awards that he is probably going to be getting here, the Animal Lawyer of the Year Award from the Section tomorrow.
Karla Eckhardt: Congratulations.
Gregg Morton: So we look forward to giving him that.
Ralph DeMeo: Is it like genius of the Section or is it like the brainchild or evil genius thing?
Matthew Dietz: A little bit of both.
Gregg Morton: I want to recognize Peggy Hoyt, who is our incoming Chair too for all of her great work that she has done for the Section.
The other thing that’s exciting is I just finished speaking at the Florida Bar, Florida Annual Update and it’s the first time in history that animal law was on the topic, it was a topic on the agenda, so we are excited about that too.
Karla Eckhardt: And I know it’s something you are going to talk about, but anything in particular that you are looking forward to speaking about?
Gregg Morton: Well, tomorrow I know we have people talking about dangerous dogs, we have people talking about invasive species; Ralph gave kind of a general overview of all the different ways that animal law can impact traditional areas of practice, from pet custody to pet trusts.
Ralph DeMeo: I will add one thing, one of the things that I spoke about, which is becoming even more true in our courtrooms is there is beginning to be a recognition on behalf of the judges that even though in terms of strict legal precedent animals like companion animals are still considered no different than personal property, there is an increasing awareness of the special relationship we have with our pets, that they are sentient beings, that they feel, they can love, they have sense of equity and fairness and judges are starting to take note of that and giving them special consideration for the first time. The law isn’t quite where we need it to be, but it’s developing.
The other thing I spoke about was the unmistakable connection between cruelty to animals as a child or adolescent and later cruelty to humans. Almost every serial killer or mass murderer started off in life abusing a family or neighborhood pet and so the more awareness there is of that psychological factor, I think the more animal welfare will be considered.
Karla Eckhardt: It’s incredibly important. Just to make it a little more personal, my brother was in a horrible motorcycle accident. He almost lost a leg. It was a nightmare. And I have to say if it weren’t for his wonderful little mutt dog Paris, I don’t know that he would have recovered as well. She came to the hospital. He cried when he first saw her after his accident. I think he was happier to see the dog than he was to see me, but hey, I don’t blame him because it’s such a connection, a special connection and it really has helped him throughout the entire recovery process.
Gregg Morton: And science more and more is recognizing that that’s a real link in term of recovery and things like that. So it’s something definitely that we love to promote and talk about.
Karla Eckhardt: It’s a beautiful thing. Again, so promoting and talking about it, again, the Paw Review is the Animal Law Section’s newsletter. If you haven’t seen it already, get your hands on it, it is not only adorable, but obviously very relevant and a lot of great information, so keep an eye out on that.
And on that note, if any one of our listeners wants to contact you guys, we will go in order, how can they reach you?
Ralph DeMeo: Probably the best way nowadays is through my email, which is HYPERLINK “[email protected]” [email protected].
Gregg Morton: You can contact me at my email, it’s HYPERLINK “[email protected]” [email protected]. And I also want to put a plug in for the Section’s website, HYPERLINK “www.flabaranimals.org” www.flabaranimals.org. There you can find a lot more information about the Section and how to join.
Matthew Dietz: And if you want to know more about me and if you want to contact me, you should go to my website, which is HYPERLINK “www.justdigit.org” www.justdigit.org.
Karla Eckhardt: Like it.
Ralph DeMeo: May I mention one more thing?
Karla Eckhardt: Go for it.
Ralph DeMeo: We are the newest and fastest growing of all the Sections. In our second year we have 500 members, but we need more members, and if any of this that we have been talking about sounds interesting, we urge lawyers, non-lawyers and even law students to join our Section. And you can go to the website that Gregg just mentioned to do that.
Karla Eckhardt: Great. And we will include that website with the podcast information to make that a little more easily accessible.
Ralph DeMeo: Thank you.
Karla Eckhardt: Well, this has been another edition of The Florida Bar Podcast, brought to you by The Practice Resource Institute on Legal Talk Network. I want to thank our guests for joining us.
If you liked what you heard today, please find us and rate us on iTunes. I am Karla Eckhardt. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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