'Animal Judge' Nick Nazaretian gets a new gig in Tampa

Published June 22, 2012

The burly blond judge is on break from his docket in Animal Court, the last he will preside over. He is thumbing through a scrapbook of dogs — years and years of dogs.

Labs and boxers and interesting mixes, a one-eyed chihuahua, dogs whose scars healed, dogs found terribly skinny that thrived with decent care — all cases that passed through his court.

Smiley is a favorite. Rescued from neglect, Smiley was named at the Animal Services shelter the way a large man might be called Tiny, since an encounter with a car left him open-mouthed with only a few teeth. There is hope for a good home for Smiley one day.

Hillsborough County-turned-Circuit Judge Nick Nazaretian (rhymes with samaritan) helped create this court for noncriminal animal cases — dogs loose, aggressive dogs, dogs without shots or tags, pets neglected. Owner Court might be a better name.

He's seen cat hoarders and cock fighters, pythons and parrots. His courtroom was once the backdrop for a cable reality series called Pet Court.

Here Nazaretian told a young woman who left her dog, Mr. Snuggles, in a sweltering car at Ikea, "What piece of furniture is worth your dog's life?" He asked the owner of Mittens, a cat shot with a BB gun and tossed in the bay in a carrier that said kitty penitentiary, "What kind of person does that?"

It's all here: human meanness, weakness, good intention against a bad economy. Hundreds of times he's signed injunctions saying people cannot own pets, and more than that he's given counsel on how to be better. His refrain: "You love your animal? Show me."

His main assignment was domestic violence court, but he loved this, even if the pictures make him go home and remind his brood of Australian shepherds how lucky they are. Recently, he won an appointment to the circuit bench and is in family law, divorce court, or as they say in the courthouse, Where Love Goes to Die. (It's a promotion. Really.) Another judge picks up what he started.

His last day, Nazaretian offers a man with two randy chihuahuas a deal: Bring proof you got them fixed and I'll waive $800 in fees. "Yes, sir!" he says.

A neighbor brings in photo evidence via home security camera of the dog next door repeatedly doing his business by the man's front walk. "A CSI case," the judge says.

And a miracle: A woman whose dog was attacked says the owners of the other dog apologized and paid all the vet bills. In the courtroom, everyone shakes hands. The judge beams.

He winces at a dog called Ripper, or Kilo, Killer, Scarface, or Ganster, and the potential for self-fulfilling prophecy. He'll suggest a gradual way to change a dog's name, if anyone's interested. (Trooper, maybe?)

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Animal Services investigators (who do not always agree with his rulings) say he has done a remarkable thing: Their cases used to be heard by a hearing officer in a sad old mall, but here is a judge who does not tolerate attitude or let them be dismissed as dog catchers.

Docket done, everyone gathers, including a handful in Animal Services shirts. He makes a speech about how underfunded they are and, a little teary, how he could not handle what they have to do. "I know the job you do," the judge says. He is way beyond teary now, but maybe it's because they have brought out the cake, and the frosting is printed with Smiley's face.