One Animal at a Time

After her first case involving vulnerable pets, Jill Telfer couldn’t say no

Published in 2019 Northern California Super Lawyers Magazine

On a sunny day in Sacramento last year, a woman was walking her two dogs, a 15-pound rat terrier and an 8-pound chihuahua. A man with a Labrador crossed the street, holding a club used in martial arts. When they passed, two of the dogs wagged and sniffed each other; then the man struck the chihuahua on the head with the club, killing it.

He said he was worried the chihuahua was going to bite his dog. While the district attorney’s office did not file charges, Jill Telfer, founder of Telfer Law in Sacramento, filed a pro bono civil lawsuit on behalf of the woman. The case has yet to go to trial.

“California is on the forefront in terms of animal rights,” she says. “Unlike many other states, in California you can get punitive and emotional distress damages if a person willfully or with gross negligence injures an animal that someone owns.”

In addition to her thriving practice—representing employees in discrimination and wrongful termination matters for over a decade—Telfer has taken on animal rights cases pro bono. In 2013, she was named by the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund as one of America’s Top Ten Animal Defenders.

“The work is very rewarding,” she says. “I’m honored to be involved.”

Telfer’s love of animals is lifelong; her family always had cats and dogs. Early on, she decided she wanted to make a difference for both animals and society, so practicing law seemed a natural choice. When she attended Pepperdine School of Law, there were no classes in animal rights law, an area she didn’t find out about until she handled an employment case representing the director of an animal shelter, an African American man who alleged race discrimination and retaliation.

“The director did everything he could to try to save the animals from euthanasia,” she says. “I was so moved by his work that I looked into ways that I could help.”

Since then, she’s handled enough cases to know most of California’s animal shelter directors, as well as the animal rescue organizations, which frequently refer cases to her. She subscribes to the Animal Legal Defense Fund’s monthly newsletter. Each day, she receives a list of animals euthanized in Sacramento County—to remind herself of the enormity of the problem. “It helps me keep moving forward to help one animal at a time,” she says. She regularly emails members of several bar associations with pictures of dogs and cats waiting to be adopted.

Most of her pro bono work involves attending administrative hearings to prevent the euthanasia of a dog. When someone is bitten, a dangerous-dog hearing is held and the pet is usually euthanized. 

“Many owners don’t realize this,” says Telfer, “but at the hearing you have to present evidence to show that the dog shouldn’t be euthanized. I go to the hearing with the evidence to save the dog’s life.” Telfer has saved more than 40 dogs.

One of her most rewarding cases involved a chocolate pit bull named Salza. His owner had a substance abuse problem and lived out of her car. While the woman was visiting her dying father in Redding, Salza, who accompanied her, bit a stranger. A hearing concluded Salza should be euthanized. Telfer was called after the hearing had been held, but she didn’t give up.

“I argued to the city council that there were unusual circumstances and the dog should be released to a sanctuary,” says Telfer. The council ultimately agreed, and Telfer located a sanctuary that takes dogs who would otherwise be euthanized. Telfer paid the dog’s airfare to the facility in northern New York.

In another case, a Sacramento County shelter euthanized a pit bull, even though the owner had gone to the shelter looking for her lost dog and was told he wasn’t there. Telfer sued the shelter, contending the death was an unconstitutional taking of property without due process. “In these cases, the settlement is not financially great, but often the shelter agrees to make policy changes,” says Telfer. In this case, the shelter agreed to update its computer system so dogs wouldn’t inadvertently be euthanized.

Telfer also handles cases of animal abuse and neglect, which sometimes fall through the cracks in overworked and underfunded district attorneys’ offices. In 2012, she represented a Grass Valley-based rescue organization, Sammie’s Friends, that had stepped in to take care of llamas, goats and cows suffering severe neglect and abuse at a Big Oak Valley ranch. Telfer filed for restitution and a stay to prohibit the animals from being returned to the rancher, who argued that the group didn’t have legal standing. The Nevada County Superior Court judge disagreed, ruling for Telfer and the nonprofit group. The Nevada County district attorney then prosecuted the rancher on three felony counts and two misdemeanor counts. Twenty-one animals, including the ones in the rescue organization’s care, were removed from the rancher’s property.

At home, Telfer has her own two rescue dogs, Ella and Ashley. Ella is a bulldog-pit mix who broke her leg as a puppy and was left in a shopping cart behind the local veterinarian’s office. Ashley, a poodle mix, was found on Ash Wednesday, living on a San Francisco street corner.

“Overall, I’ve seen positive changes with people becoming more educated about animals and how to treat them,” Telfer says. “But there is still work to do.” 

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