December 09, 1996 12:00 PM

Representing creatures great, small and litigious

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, THE tortured battleground of American justice, braced for yet another epic confrontation. In a spacious Ventura County hearing room, attorney Michael Rotsten moved in, catlike, hectoring two frazzled plaintiffs, a man and a woman. Finally his prey could stand no more. “This is not the Scopes trial!” the man cried, referring to the historic 1925 “monkey trial” over the teaching of evolution in a Dayton, Tenn., school. “Will you stop badgering me?”

As it happens, the zoological reference was, in a way, apropos. For Rotsten was defending three large dogs whose howling had driven neighbors to distraction—and to court, where they demanded that the hounds be sentenced to obedience school and either kept inside at night or surgically rendered mute. A minor neighborhood squabble? Not to Michael Rotsten, the Clarence Darrow of animal welfare, for whom no case (or client) is too large, too small or too furry.

Working from a one-room office in the Encino section of L.A., the 54-year-old advocate runs one of the only practices in the nation devoted exclusively to dogs, cats, livestock, birds and just about anything with a heartbeat that isn’t identifiably human. For the lifelong pet fancier, it’s a labor of unconditional love. “With animals, you like them, they like you,” notes Rotsten. “There’s none of the usual B.S.”

Until he switched to his current specialty, Rotsten spent almost a quarter-century slogging through the seamy side of L.A. law, representing prostitutes, drug dealers, rapists and worse. He had seen his business decline sharply in recent years as more and more of his clients were beginning to rely on public defenders. Then his dog was poisoned and everything changed. One day in 1992, Taigo, his Alaskan malamute, ate some fish-flavored dry dog food that Rotsten had bought for him. Stricken with diarrhea, Taigo started foaming at the mouth and vomiting. Vets were baffled until tests revealed that Taigo’s chow had been tainted with salmonella. Rotsten turned pit bull and threatened to take the store to court. “The vet bills were between $200 and $250,” he says. “I settled for $1,250.”

Rotsten has since taken on about 250 animal-related cases, many on referrals from animal-rights groups and fellow attorneys (“They say, ‘Let’s go find the guy with the cat hair on his suit,’ ” he says). Cynics might dismiss his narrow specialty as merely the latest excess of a madly litigious society. But that would be to underestimate the profound emotional bond between humans and animals. “If you look at the polls,” points out activist Ava Park, founder of the Orange County People for Animals, “people consider their dogs and cats to be on equal footing with their children. [Rotsten] is far and away the most important person doing this work that I know of.”

Rotsten typically represents dog owners whose bite matches their bark. Currently, for example, he is handling the appeal of a woman who owns 60 Chihuahuas, exactly 56 Chihuahuas over L.A. County’s legal canine limit. Yet he is more than willing to represent other species. Consider the case of Shalom, an orange cat from Van Nuys. Brought into the vet’s for a routine teeth-cleaning, Shalom was declawed, then cut open for spaying— the removal of the ovaries. Make that aborted spay surgery; Shalom is male. Rotsten won a $7,000 settlement. Not that he’s in it just for the money. Though Rotsten concedes his animal practice has proved far more lucrative than his human criminal work, he notes, “Some attorneys who earn four times what I do have told me they’re about to burn out and can’t stand what they do. They like my passion.”

It’s something, in fact, that dates back to his Los Angeles childhood, when Rotsten cared for dogs, cats, hamsters, birds and fish, among other life-forms. “When we were young, we went to summer camp,” recalls his brother Peter, an artist in Hollywood. “He always brought home lizards, frogs and toads.” In fact, had Michael been a better science student, he might well have become a veterinarian. His father, Herman, a retired probation officer, recalls that Michael “worked for all the vets in the neighborhood,” holding terrified dogs and cats while doctors administered shots.

Rotsten especially recalls one childhood pet—Santana, a cat. “He had a feral, exotic look,” says Rotsten. “He used to sleep on my face.” Today, Rotsten and his third wife, Ann, 49, a wedding photographer, share a spacious San Fernando Valley home with their cats Bynkii, 13, Rascal, 6, and Cappy, 1. A grandfather of two, he has two grown children from an earlier marriage—Lauren, 34, a baker in Monrovia, and Erin, 31, a supermarket checker in San Diego. “I’ve never heard of anyone who helps animals more than he does,” Erin says. “He’s the Tarzan of lawyers.”

There are some cases, however, that even the Lawyer of the Jungle won’t take. “Somebody once left a message on my machine,” Rotsten recalls: ” ‘Help me. My dog has been raped by my neighbor’s dog. I want to sue.’ ” Michael Rotsten, pet attorney, investigated. “I concluded,” he says,” “that the encounter was consensual.”

RICHARD JEROME

MARC BALLON in Encino

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