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New Hillsborough animal court judge learns on the job

Animal Court Judge Matthew Lucas talks to a defendant over feeding stray animals and the legalities of pet ownership.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Animal Court Judge Matthew Lucas talks to a defendant over feeding stray animals and the legalities of pet ownership.

TAMPA — Before now, what little County Court Judge Matthew Lucas knew about animals he learned from his "bone-headed" 10-year-old mutt, Maggie.

What Lucas knew was civil litigation and appellate work in areas like business, real estate and land use. He once wrote a paper titled, "Revoking the Irrevocable Buyout: Aligning Equity with Due Diligence in Corporate Dissolution."

Then Lucas got assigned to Animal Court.

People seldom cry when they're aligning equity with due diligence. They cry every time in Animal Court.

Lucas recently replaced the Big Dawg, Nick Nazaretian, who was legendary as the court's founding magistrate before his promotion to Circuit Court in June. Nazaretian once threw the book at a woman who left her dog locked in a hot car at Ikea, declaring: "What piece of furniture is worth your dog's life?" He fined her $400.

Lucas inherited the job of fining people whose dogs escape over and under fences, bully chihuahuas and bark just to hear themselves at 3 a.m. He soon learned he'd need to fall back on every lesson Maggie ever taught him. He also discovered he'd need to bone up on humans and their behaviors. Behind almost every dog complaint is a story about people and their neighborhoods.

And then there were cows — a whole other story.

• • •

Examples from recent Animal Court:

Woman walked dog in apartment complex. Man on bicycle said "hi" to dog. Dog bit him on leg.

Angry owner: "Why did he say hi to my dog?"

Confused judge: "I don't know why. Some people say hi to everybody."

Next case.

German shepherd attacked another dog walking by on leash. Victim's owner ran shepherd off with pepper spray.

Accused dog's owner said it was case of mistaken identity. Her shepherd never left the yard that day. She produced photo of her dog as proof he wasn't pepper-sprayed.

Asked Lucas, "What would a dog look like if it had been pepper-sprayed?"

Owner said dog would look very upset. Her dog looked happy — kind of goofy happy.

• • •

More tales of good neighbors and bad neighbors:

Terry Hutcheson and Eddie Fowler came to court after Hutcheson was attacked by Fowler's two dogs, Duke and Karma. One of them bit him.

Before court on a recent Wednesday, Fowler gave Hutcheson a check for his medical bills — $276.

The judge congratulated them. "This is the way these situations ought to be handled."

He reduced the fine from $2,000 to $200.

Next up were Jacob Aftene and Susie Pearson.

Aftene had procured a bullmastiff from a friend. They're big dogs, weighing more than 100 pounds. They're usually gentle giants.

But as Lucas likes to remind everyone, "We all consider dogs part of our families, but dogs are animals, and when they see other dogs, they act like animals."

In this case, the bullmastiff got loose, encountered Pearson's 9-year-old boxer, attacked it and ripped out its throat.

The boxer, Pearson's "friend and companion" for almost a decade, died.

Lucas fined Aftene almost $1,000.

But Pearson also had to pay a veterinarian $557 for trying to save her dog's life.

Aftene offered no restitution. He left court looking shocked and angry over the fine.

Lucas told Pearson he can only impose fines. She would have to sue in another court for anything more. She left in tears.

• • •

Lucas is learning more about dogs, but still knows nothing about cats. They're not usually lawbreakers. "I've never seen a vicious cat," he said. "That's not to say I never will."

He has learned something about cows.

Sheriff's deputies found 35 head of cattle grazing on acreage left parched by too little rainfall. Deputies seized the cattle and accused the owners, Richard and Julie McDaniel, of neglect.

Veterinarian Larry Britt tried to explain to Lucas how to tell a fat cow from a skinny cow.

"I score them on the basis of 1 to 10 — 10 being so fat he can't move, 1 being he's on the ground and can't get up. … What you would like for a cow … is to be around 5 or 7, which is not too fat but not too thin."

But what if a cow is a 3 or 4? Is that evidence of neglect? Or are some cows, like some people, naturally slim?

Lucas concluded that only one of the 35 cows — "Cow 1A" — was excessively skinny. The rest were returned to the McDaniels.

The judge said he learned a lot from the case. For example, you never ask a cattleman how big his herd is. That's like asking how much money he has.

Before, all he knew about cows was that some were for milk and others for Big Macs.

New Hillsborough animal court judge learns on the job 09/23/12 [Last modified: Sunday, September 23, 2012 10:44pm]

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