Published: Sep 06, 2008 08:37 PM
Modified: Sep 06, 2008 08:37 PM
Going to court for the critters
Lawyer opens a practice specializing in animal law
Calley Gerber was 12 years old when she announced to her mother, "I am going to be a lawyer."She stuck to her vow. In 1996, she was admitted to the Colorado Bar. For the past 12 years, Gerber has practiced law -- mastering the ins and outs of the court system as a prosecutor in Colorado and the fine print in contracts after she moved to North Carolina in 2000, and became general counsel for Wakefield Development Company.Gerber was a lawyer, all right, but she about as unhappy as a dog staked to a chain."My boss at Wakefield called me in and asked how things were going. I said I hated my job and everything I did for the company. He almost fell out of his chair," Gerber said.Much to her surprise, he told her he understood and helped her research and network to find out how she could make herself happy.A life coach spent time talking to her, testing her. The results?"It was a slam dunk that I should be a lawyer," Gerber said. The question, then, wasn't whether to be a lawyer, but rather what kind of lawyer to be. The life coach had some ideas about that, too. "She said that if I wasn't trying to save the world and make it a better place, I'd never be happy," Gerber said. The next day, Feb. 1, 2008, Gerber quit her job. "I spent the weekend thinking what I wanted to do, which was either open a farm animal sanctuary or an animal law practice," Gerber said.Since her field was the law, she settled on animal law. Just one problem: there was no animal law firm for her to join. So she started her own. Last April she founded Gerber Animal Law Center in Raleigh.It may come as a surprise to some that there is such a specialty as animal law. But it turns out there are all sorts of legal issues involving pets, horses and other animals. Among the things Gerber does is create pet trusts. Such documents spell out what should happen to pets in the event of their owners' death."Thousands of animals are euthanized per year because their owners predecease them without plans," Gerber said. "It is not difficult to put a trust in place."She gets calls from Triangle residents who say their veterinarians killed their animals or another dog killed their dog. People call when they discover their neighborhood covenants say they can only have two dogs and they already have three. One of her cases involved a horse who was injured at a boarding stable. She's had pleas from people to help them when their dog has been declared dangerous. "They wanted help appealing the declaration," Gerber said. "You have to appeal in three to 10 days, so you need a lawyer right away."Before Gerber agrees to take a case, she does some investigating. "I am not out there to put dangerous dogs out there on the street," she said. "I don't want to get involved in unprovoked dog bites and mauling."While she didn't take the farm sanctuary career path, Gerber is considering taking on a factory farming case that centers on animal abuse involving poultry."I want to help any animal I can," Gerber said.In North Carolina, animals are considered property, like vehicles or houses. Gerber would like to see that change. "I think there should be an elevated property status that distinguishes them from property that doesn't live," she said. "I would like to see the law mirror people's opinions of animals a little bit better."Professor Bill Reppy teaches animal law at Duke University Law School. He lauds Gerber for her talents and the triumph of opening a law firm devoted to animal law."I think her experience as a trial lawyer is very helpful, ," said Reppy, who runs an animal law clinic at Duke. "Her clients should felt a lot of confidence with her as she knows a lot about the courtroom and how things work."Students get credits by working with lawyers on actual cases involving animals. "We expect to use Calley in a major way, and we expect our students to help her a whole lot," Reppy said.Gerber has a law degree from the University of Denver College of Law. Although it has taken her 12 years to find the niche that has made her satisfied, she would rather promote prevention that prosecution. "I love to talk about safety with animals so we are preventing those bad things from happening," Gerber said. She is available to speak and write about animal law issues to professional or lay groups.She said we need to shop with a conscience, speak out when we are asked our opinions, and talk to political candidates about important animal issues."This is an election year, a big year," she said. "If only people could realize how much power they have. It doesn't take that many people to make a difference. Like this tethering ordinance being considered in Durham and Orange Counties. This will make a huge difference."You can reach Gerber Animal Law at www.AnimalLawNC.com or 510-6393.
Deborah R. Meyer can be contacted at email@example.com or at 942-3252.
2008 The Chapel Hill News