The Animal Lawyer

In Oregon, animals are people, too. Meet the prosecutor who protects them.

In a four-month period, records show, Holdner summoned a rendering company to pick up 45 cows from his properties. The crew found bony, emaciated and diseased cows. Most of the cattle were dead when the rendering company arrived. Some had to be shot.

The Columbia County district attorney charged Holdner, now 88, with 95 counts of animal cruelty.

Across the state, district attorneys have had to face difficult choices when considering animal abuse cases. DAs are elected officials, and they know the public is outraged by cases such as Holdner's. But animal cruelty cases are difficult and expensive, and they're often low priorities.

Now Holdner and others like him have a new foe in Oregon: a baby-faced prosecutor whose sole job is pursuing animal abusers.

His name is Jake Kamins, and his business card—adorned with paw prints—reads: "State of Oregon Animal Cruelty Deputy District Attorney."

Kamins is, according to animal rights groups, one of a kind: the nation's only prosecutor who spends all his time on animal cruelty cases. He travels the state like the lawmen who patrolled Oregon in frontier days, except he rides the range in a 2002 Prius instead of on a horse.

He's prosecuted cases in 15 counties since taking the job in September 2013. Kamins, 31, won a conviction against Holdner on all counts after a three-week trial. And he'll be back in Columbia County Circuit Court on Dec. 5 to watch a judge sentence the cattleman.

Columbia County District Attorney Steve Atchison says the Holdner case was complicated, as well as resource intensive for an office with just five deputy prosecutors.

"It was a real benefit to have [Kamins] come in and try the case," Atchison says. "It made a big difference."

That Oregon became the first state with a prosecutor whose only job is to protect animals is no accident. We have the fourth-highest rate of pet ownership in the nation, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And the Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks Oregon No. 2 for the extent to which its laws protect non-human residents.

But Kamins' hiring also raises ethical questions.

Only the state can bring criminal charges, and taxpayers with rare exception bear the cost of bringing the accused to trial. 

That's no longer true in Oregon.

Kamins prosecutes cases for the state, but his position is being paid for by a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a California advocacy group. 

The ALDF is an aggressive and sometimes controversial protector of animal rights, frequently making headlines for its tactics.

The group has gone to bat for orca whales in the Miami Seaquarium, blasted the Oregon Zoo for selling elephants to traveling shows, defended a ban on fur sales in West Hollywood, Calif., and fought industrial animal raising and slaughtering operations across the country.

But few people know the group is also paying for prosecution of crimes against animals in Oregon.

The privatization of law enforcement raises important questions: What interest groups should be allowed to fund their own prosecutors? And where should the state draw the line? Protecting animals might have wide public support here, but does it open the door for other advocacy groups—such as those focused on abortion, voting rights or the environment—to fund their own prosecutors as well?

"I'm uneasy with somebody buying a prosecutor," says state Rep. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Barker says he was unaware the ALDF was bankrolling a deputy district attorney until asked by WW. "I don't want selective prosecution. It doesn't really matter who it is."

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
The Oregonian
39 stories about Snowball

Then in 2012, activists abducted 18 rabbits from the Portland Meat Collective, an operation that teaches people how to butcher animals, including bunnies. A group called Rabbit Advocates returned 17 of them, but the fate of the 18th missing rabbit, which had "Roger" tattooed on his ear, transfixed this city for another six days until he too was returned.

The advocates turned the purloined rabbits over to the Meat Collective at the Tigard office of a lawyer, Geordie Duckler, who has represented clients accused of animal crimes for more than 25 years.

Duckler remembers the scene: lawyers, activists and even police. He recalls a cop, who was a transplant from Chicago, shaking his head at the situation.

"The officer said that in Chicago, if somebody called the cops about a bunch of rabbits being stolen, we'd be asking where's the barbecue?" Duckler says. "Here, there are three sets of lawyers involved. That's crazy."

Duckler, who represents clients across the country, says Oregonians' love of animals is stronger than he's seen anywhere else.

"One of my clients is Oregon Ferret Shelter," Duckler says. "I love them, and they are great clients. But how many people even have ferrets? How many are going to abandon them? And how many other states have ferret rescue operations?"

State legislators have often reflected the public's concern. Lawmakers have cracked down on puppy mills and increased the penalties for animal fighting and even once-routine practices like letting an untethered dog ride in the back of a pickup truck. In 2011, Oregon's senior lawmaker, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), put the weight of his three decades of legislative experience into a successful push for the right of caged hens to have more room to move around.

"I'm a softie, and I admit it when it comes to animal welfare," Courtney told Oregon Public Broadcasting at the time.

Two Oregon Supreme Court rulings this year paved the way for more expansive prosecutions. In one decision, the court ruled that police do not need search warrants to seize endangered animals.

In the second, the court ruled that animals can be considered individual victims, not just property. In Umatilla County, a man had been accused of mistreating 20 horses and goats. The counts of animal neglect were merged into one conviction, however, under the theory that the animals were, in effect, a single unit of property. The Oregon Supreme Court later ruled that each animal can indeed be treated as a separate victim—raising the stakes enormously for defendants.

Prosecutors say the public reacts to animal abuse cases like no others. Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis has tried murders and other high-profile cases, but he says nothing resonates with constituents like those cases involving animals.

In 1995, Marquis prosecuted Vikki Kittles, a woman who'd kept 115 dogs in an old school bus, rarely allowing them outside. The case, which Marquis won, led to the passage of Oregon's felony animal abuse law.

Even though Oregonians react strongly to animal cases, district attorneys often lack the time and money to pursue them. "When you have to make the list of what you can and can't do," Marquis says, "animal abuse is first to go out the window."

Scott Heiser was district attorney in Benton County for eight years. During that time, he took animal abuse cases seriously. In 2005, he indicted a man for killing a cat with a bow and arrow. At the time, he told the Corvallis Gazette-Times he put animal cruelty cases on par with child abuse, elder abuse and domestic violence.

In 2006, Heiser stepped down as DA to work for the Animal Legal Defense Fund in the group's Portland office, where he advises prosecutors across the country on animal cases.

In 2013, Heiser approached his former colleagues in the Oregon District Attorneys Association with an idea: What if the advocacy group provided $300,000 to fund an animal abuse prosecutor?

"We were kind of uncomfortable initially because of who was paying for it," says Paul Frasier, Coos County district attorney and president of the association.

The DAs knew that beyond the basic issue of privatizing a function normally paid for by the public, there would be other challenges: Accepting money from an advocacy group would create a precedent. There are plenty of groups that might want their own prosecutor—how would the DAs decide who else got one?

And there was another problem: independence. Who would call the shots as to which cases to pursue and how to prosecute them?

Frasier says the DAs association went ahead with the proposal, but under strict guidelines.

"The ALDF cannot in any way, shape or form suggest how the cases are handled," Frasier says. "The prosecutor still has to be selected by the district attorney and has to follow law. The victim cannot control the prosecution."

Jake Kamins, a Multnomah County assistant district attorney who had prosecuted animal cases, jumped at the opportunity to pursue such cases full time.

Today, Kamins works from the Portland home he shares with his wife, Jackie, who is also a lawyer, as well as their two children and an 18-year-old tabby cat named Cassie.

Kamins says he never imagined he'd end up as the nation's first full-time animal abuse prosecutor, but he has received a warmer response from prosecutors in the state than he generally does from the family cat.

Kamins grew up in northern Virginia. His family owned a dog, and he liked visiting zoos, but he was no more interested in animals than most kids. At Brandeis University near Boston, he majored in politics and theater, spending his free time in a campus improv group.

He came west for law school at Lewis & Clark College, and after graduation landed a job at the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office in 2009. Like most young prosecutors, he handled misdemeanor cases, including a few involving animals.

In one case, the victim was a pit bull named Caleb, whose owner left him to starve. "Animal abuse cases really strike a chord," Kamins says. "It's nice to work on cases that people care about."

Kamins has embraced his one-of-a-kind role. His Twitter handle is @AnimalDDA. Even though he's a city boy often working in rural counties, he says he's gotten a warm reception.

"I thought I was going to get a lot of skepticism from law enforcement," he says. "I expected eye-rolling, a 'Doggie DA' kind of thing. But the response has been welcoming."

He says prosecuting animal cases presents special challenges. The first is obvious: Animals can't testify against their abusers.

And animal cases often don't involve police. "I am dealing with witnesses who don't take notes or testify for a living," Kamins says. "A lot of witnesses work in animal rescue, but they're not professional investigators."

Kamins says that means more witness preparation and a lot of time spent tracking down photographs, notes and other information that police might normally provide in non-animal prosecutions.

Since turning to animal cases full time, Kamins has gone after people who have mistreated rabbits, rats, snakes, dogs, cats, sheep, cows, horses and alpacas.

Earlier this year, Kamins won a conviction in Crook County that resulted in 60 days' jail time for Robert Gruntz, a California man who solicited investments in horses kept at a Powell Butte ranch. But Gruntz failed to feed the horses. 

"They were eating the wooden fence posts," says Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins, who oversaw Kamins' work. "It was a horrible situation."

"Jake was a great resource," Vitolins adds. "He brought a level of expertise that was really beneficial."

Not every case is as dramatic. In July, Kamins came to the rescue of a neglected Lhasa apso named Zelda. An investigator found Zelda in Marion County covered in fleas, suffering from ear and skin infections, overgrown toenails and an untreated eye ailment that left her nearly blind.

Kamins charged the owner with second-degree animal neglect. She pleaded guilty, surrendered Zelda and agreed not to own an animal again for five years.

(Zelda, who was adopted by another family, later died of causes unrelated to the mistreatment.) 

"What you realize in this job is the total reliance of abused animals on a prosecutor," Kamins says. "They've got no way to seek help or communicate with people."

But Kamins' job exists only because of the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Since its founding in 1979, the ALDF, based in Cotati, Calif., has aggressively pursued animal rights in courts across the nation.

The group has an annual budget of $7.5 million and spends much of it going to court on animals' behalf. Recently, the ALDF fought foie gras producers on both coasts and sued to gain access to records regarding New York City's carriage horses. The group fought in an Idaho court to give activists the right to film factory farming techniques. And earlier this year, the ALDF forced the cancellation of a coyote-killing contest in Oregon's Harney County.

Kamins says he's independent of the ALDF. Although he has visited the ALDF's Portland office to use the advocacy group's printer, he works solely under the direction of the elected DA in the county where he's pursuing a case.

"I've never had any direction on how to do my work from the ALDF," Kamins says. "This is a prosecution position, it's not an advocacy position. I'm not trying to change laws or push the boundaries of existing laws."

Yet the very existence of his position promotes the ALDF's agenda, and the group has used the prospect of funding prosecutions to raise money from donors.

That makes at least one group uneasy.

"We have concerns about the policy implications of a private advocacy group funding prosecution," says Katie Fast, a lobbyist for the Oregon Farm Bureau. “It has the potential to distort the legal process.” 

But the idea of a privately funded prosecutor is so novel that many people in Oregon legislative and legal circles are unaware it exists.

"I've never heard of something like this before," says professor Susan Gary, who specializes in nonprofits at the University of Oregon School of Law. "It might be a good idea if the group is doing something the government does not have the money to do, but you still have to ask whether the government's function is being influenced."

Former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who also served as attorney general and associate justice of the state Supreme Court, is concerned about the precedent the ALDF sets. "Think about what would happen if private debt collectors wanted to fund a position to go after people," Kulongoski says.

Rep. Barker, a retired Portland police detective whose House Judiciary Committee oversees Oregon's legal system, says he's troubled by the potential for blurred lines of accountability.

"We'll probably have a legislative hearing on this because it's so unusual," Barker says. "A prosecutor is supposed to work for the public."

The ALDF's Scott Heiser says many players are involved in the justice system. District attorneys regularly accept federal grant money targeting gang activity. And he notes that private nonprofits run many of Oregon's child-abuse assessment centers, gathering evidence that's often used in criminal trials.

Heiser hopes Kamins' work will be a model for other jurisdictions.

"This is the ideal solution to chronic problems in many states," Heiser says. "Many DAs are underfunded, and not expert in animal law."

Kamins says he'll leave it to others to decide whether it's appropriate for a nonprofit to fund his position.

"That's above my pay grade," he says. "I'm just focused on my job. I feel like I’m doing a lot of important work for the victims of abuse.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.