No, it's not just the griping of a lawyer who's had a rough week: Bruce Wagman's clients really are a bunch of apes.
Wagman, 51, whose entire practice is devoted to animal law, has lately developed an even narrower focus in chimpanzee and ape protection. "As bizarre as it is to think I was already doing something that was such a niche, now I've got a subspecialty in chimps," says the Schiff Hardin lawyer.
The 11 apes Wagman most recently helped -- two chimps and nine gibbons
-- were the subject of an 18-month legal battle between the troubled Texas facility they were pulled from and the sanctuaries in South Carolina and Oregon where authorities placed the apes in October 2006. Those sanctuaries turned to Wagman when the Texas group wanted the apes back.
It was just the latest in a string of high-profile cases for Wagman, chief outside counsel for the Animal Legal Defense Fund and author of the leading book in the field, Animal Law. Wagman has even been caught on television tearfully rescuing about 200 dogs from a feces-strewn house in North Carolina.
He's also something of a trail-blazer. Animal law is a fast-growing practice area, according to a story last year in our sibling publication The National Law Journal, "U.S. Attorneys Flock to Animal Law." More law schools are offering courses in animal law, bolstered in part by grants from a foundation set up by Bob Barker, the former host of "The Price is Right" and one of the world's most ardent proponents of pet population control.
The chimp and gibbon dispute started when the Texas attorney general's office ordered the apes removed from Primarily Primates, a San Antonio sanctuary authorities accused of mistreating the animals and misspending funds. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, never one to avoid hyperbole, labeled Primarily Primates "hell on earth for animals" on its Web site.
Authorities shifted more than 200 animals to other sanctuaries until Primarily Primates hired new leadership, spent $1.5 million on improvements and eventually convinced the AG's office to drop the case, Wagman said. Primarily Primates moved to reclaim all the animals that had been removed, but two sanctuaries housing the apes protested. Lawsuits followed.
Under the terms of Wednesday's settlement, the chimps, Emma and Jackson, will be permitted to remain at Chimps Inc., in Bend, Ore. Nine gibbons will stay at the International Primate Protection League in Summerville, S.C.; three other gibbons were returned to Primarily Primates. Liam Sherlock of the Eugene, Ore., firm Sherlock & Jerome represented Primarily Primates in the Oregon case; Emily Frost of Austin, Texas' McGinnis, Lochridge & Kilgore handled all Texas-based litigation for Primarily Primates.
This was Wagman's third chimp case. In 2005 he and the ALDF filed suit against Hollywood chimp trainer Sid Yost, claiming that Yost violated the federal Endangered Species Act by beating the chimps to get them to behave. Yost denied the charges, but Wagman helped secure the removal of three chimps to sanctuaries.
Wagman also briefly represented the interests of a chimp kept as a pet by a California couple. After the chimp bit a resident, neighbors tried to force its removal from their home. The couple eventually agreed to move the chimp, Moe, to a sanctuary in Havilah, Calif. The case grew infamous when the couple visited Moe for his birthday and two other chimps viciously attacked them, ripping off the man's nose and testicles, according to news reports.
The attack underscores the difficulty of controlling chimps without resorting to force or cruelty. It was hearing such accounts at a lecture during his judicial clerkship that persuaded Wagman to devote his life to animal law -- and become a vegan.
The passion extends to his home, where Wagman and his wife have three dogs and five cats. Wagman laughs when asked about the breed of his dogs, all rescued from the pound.
"They're the kind of dogs they'll kill otherwise," he says.