Danelle Conway doesn’t know much about Zion’s history, only that he was rescued in New Mexico and ended up at the Douglas County Canine Rescue. But she thinks there must have been some violence in his past: He’s got some scars, and a piece of one ear is missing. Nevertheless, Zion, a one-year-old, 75-pound bull mastiff mix, is beautiful, with golden brown fur and sad, imploring eyes. When she and her husband, Kent McKnight, met the dog and his foster family at a local park in May 2021, Zion seemed happy and craved human affection. The foster family said he also played well with their other dog.

Zion seemed like the ideal pet to Conway and McKnight, whose 17-year-old Lhasapoo had died earlier that year. The couple adopted the bull mastiff mix, and he quickly became a warm, playful addition to their Parker home, cuddling with them on their couch at night when they watched TV. He even behaved himself around their grandchildren. “He doesn’t have an aggressive bone in his body when it comes to people,” Conway says. Other dogs, however, proved to be a problem.

Two weeks after joining the family, Zion jumped Conway and McKnight’s fence and attacked a boxer that was passing the house with its owner. Both dogs suffered minor scratches, and the city, which prosecutes animal attack cases, issued a deferred sentence: If Zion made it six months without another clash, his record would be cleared. He served his stretch without incident.

In the meantime, Conway and McKnight enrolled him in a board-and-train program and installed an electric fence. But a year after the first incident, in June 2022, Zion went after another dog on a trail, leaving puncture wounds on the other animal. This time, he received a 12-month deferment and then quickly re-offended: In August 2022, he assaulted a third dog after pulling hard enough on his leash to cause McKnight to let go of the tether. Although Conway says neither canine was seriously hurt, McKnight fell and hit his head on the pavement, suffered bruising on his brain, and had to be rushed to the emergency room by ambulance.

Following Zion’s second incident, Parker’s Municipal Court had charged Conway under a municipal code that makes it illegal to possess a “dangerous dog,” defined as one that inflicts bodily injury on a person or animal, within town limits. In addition to the deferred judgment, Conway had been ordered to pay a $50 donation to the Buddy Center, an animal shelter in Castle Rock operated by the Dumb Friends League, a Denver-based animal welfare nonprofit. In November 2022, months after Zion’s third strike, the town ordered Conway to surrender the dog to the Buddy Center. “The legal concept ‘the thing speaks for itself’ comes to mind,” Judge Kevin Sidel wrote in his sentencing order. “If Zion must be outfitted with multiple leashes and collars and a muzzle in order to protect the community…the Town’s argument that Zion poses a danger to the community has been established.” The court decreed that the Buddy Center would decide Zion’s fate.

Conway appealed the sentence, but Zion would have to live in the shelter while awaiting the outcome. That October, McKnight had died from an undiagnosed heart condition at the age of 62. A month later, Conway delivered Zion to the Buddy Center. “It was like losing two of your best friends at the same time,” Conway says. As she handed the dog over, Conway says she asked if Zion would be adopted out to a new family, one that might continue to train him, if she should lose her appeal. “They said, ‘He has been deemed a dangerous dog,’  ” Conway says. “  ‘We’d have to put him down.’  ”

Zion spent 17 months in an animal shelter. Photo courtesy of Danelle Conway

Even before the Parker court sentenced Zion to the Buddy Center, Conway had hired a lawyer to represent her. In the not-so-distant past, she would have had to rely on a typical criminal defense attorney (she, not Zion, was the defendant, after all), but a new breed of lawyer had emerged that seemed to be a better fit for the job. “There are attorneys that are popping out now that their entire practice is centered around animal law,” says Josh Rolfe, a lieutenant with Denver Animal Protection, part of the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment. “They are animal defense attorneys.”

Conway retained the Animal Law Firm, which Kristina Bergsten founded in Denver in 2017. (The practice has since opened branches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York and plans to open a Texas office soon.) That same year, Jeremy and Alexa McKay, graduates of the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, launched Environmental and Animal Defense, a nonprofit firm. Justie Nicol predates both the Animal Law Firm and Environmental and Animal Defense. After growing up in Holyoke, a farming community on the Eastern Plains, Nicol graduated from DU’s law school and spent nearly four years as a deputy district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District—where her penchant for prosecuting animal cruelty cases earned her the nickname “DA Doolittle” by her boss, George Brauchler—before she switched sides. She now resides in Golden and specializes in animal defense cases for the Colorado Lawyer Team.

Although these attorneys are concerned with broader animal rights issues, their caseloads focus more on individual animals, whether they’ve been deemed dangerous or are part of a tug-of-war between former partners in a custody battle. “There are many organizations that do great work focused on factory farming and bettering the treatment of, for example, chickens,” says Alexa. “But due to their large-picture focus, [they] may not be able to always pay attention to individual chickens. Well, our very first case was about an individual rooster, who was impounded and was going to be put to sleep just because it was illegal for a rooster to be in that jurisdiction.” Presumably for the well-being of its citizenry’s shut-eye, Aurora prohibits the possession of roosters; the McKays got it sent to a sanctuary outside of city limits. “Its former caretaker was able to visit it quite frequently,” Alexa says, “and the rooster lived the rest of his life quite peacefully.”

The idea of an animal lawyer might conjure images of Ace Ventura, but the domain has become one of the fastest-growing fields in the profession. DU’s Sturm College of Law boasts the first dedicated animal law program in the Rocky Mountain region. Due to increased student demand, the University of Colorado Law School introduced two courses on animal law this past semester. “This field has grown exponentially over the past 20 years,” says Kathleen Wood, senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national nonprofit. “There are more and more programs being put into law schools across the country…for attorneys who are looking to specialize in animal law.”

Of course, young lawyers wouldn’t have an opportunity to put those skills into practice if people didn’t care passionately about their companion animals, relationships that became even more important over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did Americans adopt millions of rescues, but also, according to a 2021 study in the journal Animals, most owners who were surveyed believe their dogs and cats had an extremely positive impact on their well-being during the days of quarantine. “Even opposing counsels will be like, ‘Oh, it’s just a dog case. It doesn’t matter,’  ” says Cerridwyn Nordstrom, one of the Animal Law Firm’s five full-time attorneys and the only one based in Colorado. “But it does matter. People don’t see it as important, but to the people who it affects, it absolutely is.”

If Bergsten, Nicol, and the McKays are the fixers of animal law, think of Justin Marceau, the Brooks Institute Faculty Research Scholar of Animal Law and Policy at DU’s Sturm College of Law, as the academic contemplating the greater constitutional questions of the burgeoning field. Marceau doesn’t have any heartwarming anecdotes about a childhood pet that inspired his enthusiasm for the specialty. Growing up in Montana, his allergies were so bad that his parents shipped Marceau’s puppy to his grandparents’ house. At Harvard Law School, Marceau was readying to become a human rights attorney before he took an animal law class during his final semester. He had always been interested in how the law protects the vulnerable, Marceau says, and “animals certainly fit into that category.”

What also appealed to Marceau was the potential of the discipline. While lawyers can point to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Clean Water Act of 1972 as landmark pieces of federal legislation that largely determine legality in their respective realms, animal rights has no overarching federal road map. Young attorneys are flocking to the specialty because it’s a blank page on which attorneys might ink the future.

Consider, Marceau says, civil rights lawyers in the middle of the 20th century. Some of them likely believed that 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education would be the hallmark desegregation decision of their time—but then came the Civil Rights Act a decade later. “We look back and sort of tell ourselves a simple story about how it all came together,” Marceau says. “But we’re still right in the middle of that story in animal law.”

The Denver lawyer has been penning some of the story’s chapters himself. In the late 1990s, activist organizations began uncovering shocking conditions at industrial farms throughout the country. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, for one, released videos and photos of pigs being skinned alive in North Carolina. Rather than impose stricter rules on industrial farms, as many as 28 state legislatures reacted by attempting to enact so-called “ag-gag” laws, which essentially made it illegal for activists to take images of factory farms without the owners’ authorization. (Jerry Sonnenberg, a former Colorado state senator and current Republican candidate for the 4th Congressional District, attempted to pass such a bill in 2015 but shelved it before the vote.) Marceau worked with a team of lawyers that successfully had the ag-gag laws in Utah and Idaho ruled unconstitutional.

Like Bergsten’s, the McKays’, and Nicol’s work, Marceau’s sometimes helps individual animals. In 2022, a Utah county charged two activists with stealing two piglets from a massive Smithfield Farms facility. Marceau served as a character witness for one of the defendants, conveying to the jury that the activist honestly believed that rescuing sick and dying animals was not only a moral obligation, but a legal one, too. Despite the fact that the accused had videotaped themselves taking the animals and posted the clip online, a local jury acquitted them of burglary and theft. Technically, the verdict cleared two humans, but it also resulted in the freedom of two piglets that had been living in deplorable conditions.

In Colorado, animals already enjoy greater safeguards than in most other states. The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks Colorado as the fifth most protective state in the country based on a comparison of the strength of laws in 20 different categories, from “definition of animal” to “general cruelty.” In 2016, a defendant in Colorado attempted to dodge 22 convictions of animal cruelty by suggesting that the horses, donkeys, dogs, and llama she owned counted as a single course of conduct—one crime—so she should receive only a single conviction. The Colorado Court of Appeals rejected that notion, in effect ruling that pets and other animals would thereafter be considered separate victims. It’s a small, debatable distinction, but Colorado is one of the few states to make it. Even so, Nicol doesn’t believe that the ruling has had a substantive impact on the rule of law. “In Colorado,” she says, “a dog is the same as a couch. Property.”

Still, that property is dear to many people, and in the near future, Marceau hopes to expand laws that permit the rescue of imperiled animals: In 2017, Colorado passed a bill that allows people to break a window to save a dog in a hot car. Marceau believes future legislation should extend the same protection to pigs suffering in a factory farm. Perhaps going even a step further, Nicol says animals deserve to have their own standing in court. “They aren’t people, but they aren’t couches,” she says. “They need to have a different classification in between.”

During the appeal process, Conway came to see Zion’s continued captivity as a sort of living bond. To maintain her ownership rights, she had to pay the Parker Municipal Court $648 per month for boarding at the Buddy Center. Despite paying to essentially keep him alive, Conway says she was never allowed to visit Zion. Because he was deemed “dangerous,” he served his time separate from other dogs.

“They said they enrolled him in some enrichment programs where they would take him out for walks and play with him,” Conway says. “But if I called and asked for an update, I was told, ‘ We’re not allowed to disclose any information other than to tell you that he’s being well taken care of.’  ” When she dropped off treats and toys, Conway received the same response. (The Dumb Friends League declined to respond to Conway’s specific allegations but shared a report from a Colorado Department of Agriculture agent who found Zion “to be healthy. He did not have any obvious wounds or sores, he was a healthy weight, and was not exhibiting any stereotypical behavior indicating that his mental health was suffering.”)

Meanwhile, attorneys from the Animal Law Firm sparred with Parker’s prosecutors. Nordstrom claims her opposition accused her team of lying about things such as whether it was raining on the night Zion attacked the third dog and whose counsel first proffered a settlement offer. Conway says Parker’s attorneys went so far as to insinuate that McKnight had died due to the spill he took while walking Zion, even though an autopsy proved a heart condition had killed her husband. (Neither of Parker’s prosecutors for the Zion case responded to interview requests. Rolfe, the Denver Animal Protection lieutenant, says he is not surprised that the town fought to impound Zion, because leaving an animal with an extensive record on the loose is “a big public safety risk.”)

All that mattered, however, was the law. A Douglas County court ruled Parker’s municipal code did not allow the town to delegate sentencing to a third party, in this instance, the Buddy Center. It sent the case back to Parker to decide if Zion was capable of being rehabilitated or needed to be put down—and if it settled on the latter, the court needed to show why Conway, who had already outlined plans to control Zion through one animal behaviorist, two leashes, three collars, and a four-week board-and-train program, could not be trusted to control the dog. “The trial court merely concluded that these efforts came ‘too late,’  ” District Court Judge Andrew Baum wrote, “without explaining why it is too late.”

In the end, the Parker court decided to return Zion to Conway, who had relocated to northwest Oregon during the dog’s confinement. In early April, 17 months after surrendering her rescue to the shelter, Conway picked him up from the Buddy Center. “He greeted me and then went around and greeted everybody else,” Conway says. “Then he came back and gave me a hug and wanted to put on his muzzle so that he could leave.”

Zion’s release hinged on certain conditions, such as Conway placing a sign in her home’s front window that lets passersby know a dangerous dog lives there. Conway estimates she spent $48,000 on boarding and legal fees to save Zion. Still, she doesn’t regret hiring Bergsten’s firm; she believes Parker would have euthanized the dog without the firm’s help.

Despite what the state investigator concluded, Conway says that during Zion’s captivity, he became overweight, his nails overgrew, and patches of his fur fell out. In Oregon, she plans to work with a veterinarian to get a better understanding of his overall health, and she has already enlisted a trainer to help curb his aggression toward other animals. Conway works from home, so she and Zion spend all day together. “It’s basically just getting back into a routine,” Conway says, “so he can again trust that I will protect him.”