Hillsborough County judge Nick Nazaretian emerges as colorful figure on Tru TV's news series Pet Court
Spend a bit of time talking with Hillsborough County Judge Nick Nazaretian, and you’ll discover an unassuming, middle-aged jurist with a friendly knack for cutting through the nonsense in his courtroom.
Until he gets a whiff of injustice toward animals.
Then the even-handed attitude disappears. His questions grow pointed and impatient. And heaven help a defendant who can’t come up with the right answers.
It’s that reflex which helps him sort through cases on Hillsborough County’s Animal Court, where about twice monthly Nazaretian adjudicates citations handed out by animal control officers on issues ranging from dog bites to noise complaints.
It’s what led him to lash out at a 19-year-old who left her dog locked in an overheated car at Tampa’s Ikea furniture store – a well-publicized case which brought a $400 fine and a barbed speech from the judge, asking, “What piece of furniture is worth your dog’s life?”
It’s also the attitude that earned Nazaretian a starring role in Pet Court, a quickie series airing this week on the Tru TV cable channel (once known as Court TV), outlining the most interesting cases producers observed over months of filming at his Tampa courtroom.
(See clips from the show by clicking here)
“There’s no bad animals, only bad owners,” said Nazaretian, 48, who normally handles domestic violence cases, except for the few days each month he supervises the Animal Court. “I have a passion for animals, and to me, there’s a lot of neglect going on. When you hear some people are afraid to take a walk in their neighborhood because they might be attacked by a dog, well people can’t live like that.”
On Pet Court, Nazaretian usually comes across as sincere and supportive, asking probing questions in an easy manner to suss out each situation quickly as possible (with up to 40 trials a day on the schedule, fast resolutions are important).
In one moment, he’ll warmly encourage a nervous child to speak up while explaining how she was rollerblading with her 100-pound dog; the next, he’ll laugh while encouraging a witness to mimic the sounds made by a barking dog early in the morning.
But when he learns that one witness had been shooting rocks at a chicken with a slingshot, the fiery side of Nazaretian emerges – just the kind of emotionalism and charm that led Tru TV to build the show around his court in the first place.
“He’s passionate about animals, he’s passionate about justice and he’s very good at his job,” said Marlene Dann, an executive vice president at the channel. “Part of the fascination is that people don’t know these kinds of courts exist. The cases are real. And it can be surprising how serious some of the cases can be.
The show’s formula is simple, featuring footage from Nazaretian’s hearings, then snippets from interviews with the judge and the people involved in the cases. Often the actual issues at hand are minor – dogs barking too loud, cats roaming a neighborhood, pets biting a bystander.
But the emotions can be intense, as owners fear hefty fines or the loss of their pets. The proceedings can feel a bit like an animalized version of Judge Judy, with Nazaretian veering between helpful authority and harsh interrogation.
Tru TV will only air the show this week, two half-hour episodes a day at 3 p.m., as it judges whether audience interest warrants moving forward with a full season.
“Hopefully, the show will educate people about how to be more responsible with their pets,” said the judge, who admits he questioned producers on whether viewers would find his court interesting, before he saw the finished episodes. “These may seem like minor problems, but when they’re happening to you, they’re a big deal.