Judge Joseph Wapner, who will celebrate his 80th birthday just before the new millennium (in November), says retirement is for the dogs.
“”I’m barking about the new millennium,”” he says. No wonder. Last TV season the celebrated judge came out of retirement to host “”Judge Wapner’s Animal Court,”” which is seen on Animal Planet.
Since “”The People’s Court”” wound up its 12 year syndicated run in 1993 Wapner traveled the country giving speeches and participating in many charity endeavors, most notably as president of Brandeis-Barden Institute, which features summer programs for Jewish young adults. When not at a meeting or on the lecture circuit, he could probably be found on the tennis courts. Now, he’s back behind the bench.
“”I don’t have a pet, I’ve never had a pet,”” he says in his typically straightforward no-nonsense manner. “”The producer came looking for me, and I thought it was a good idea. Period. I certainly understand the relationship people have with their pets from when I presided in Small Claims and even Superior Courts when I saw dog bites cases and others.””
Still, after 33 years on the bench, Wapner never thought he’d see a horse walk into his courtroom. Actually, “”Judge Wapner’s Animal Court”” isn’t a real courtroom, it’s a Burbank, Calif set. But, still, a horse?
“”Actually, four horses in all,”” he counters. But who’s counting?
“”I must say, the horses have been well behaved,”” he adds.
Better behaved than some of the people who have paraded through his courtroom? “”Very possibly,”” says the Judge, who has says the saddest horse case was that of a horse who got out of its pasture and was struck by an auto. The owner of the horse sued the driver of the car and the driver sued the owner of the horse. Wapner says that sadly it turned out the horse’s owner was negligent about keeping the gate open and the horse paid the ultimate price.
“”To the people in this courtroom, what happens isn’t frivolous or funny,”” he says. “”It’s fascinating to observe how people become so attached to their pets.”” He recalls one woman who began to cry when telling of the injuries her beloved dog suffered when attacked by a dog. “”She cried and cried – nothing is made up or exaggerated. We don’t need to do that. It’s all very real.””
As two parties disputed over ownership of one dog, the pooch entered the courtroom. The dog saw both parties, but ran to only one, tail wagging and barking in delight. Who say’s testimony can’t come from a four-legged witness?
Wapner didn’t become pack leader of the animal courtroom overnight. The Los Angeles native graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in philosophy in 1941. The next year he joined the U.S. Army as a private, and served in the South Pacific. He was decorated for bravery with a Purple Heart. He returned to Southern California to pursue a law degree, and was in private practice until he began his bench career in 1959.
On TV Wapner doesn’t hesitate to offer an opinion, and the same is true off-camera. “”We’re losing our reverence for life and our sense of community,”” he says. Wapner talks about how only recently he’s learned there indeed is a connection between young children abusing or killing companion animals and then ultimately committing serious crimes, including murder. “”It sounds reasonable that hurting animals is certainly a symptom,”” he says. “”But the cure is re-learning ethics and love. We’ve grown too scattered as a country, too large for our good. Too many of us lose track of our families we don’t know our neighbors. These values must return.””
Wapner also hopes the legal worth of companion animals will soon change. “”People are so emotionally attached, “” he says. In most places around the country, pets are considered property, nothing more. Legally your dog, cat or bird is only worth what you paid for it. If you received your pet free, it’s not worth anything, according to our legal system. “”That should change – it’s not right,”” says Wapner, who distinctively adds. “”But the law is the law.””
Meanwhile, when it comes to small claims pet litigation, pet owners have at least one outlet. Of course, it’s also a TV program, offering entertainment. Wapner says he was actually more disgusted than entertained when a man dumped countless dead worms on the courtroom desk.
It was a breach of contract case. The worms weren’t pets, but they were supposed to be alive and used for a kind of enhancement mulch. When the wigglers arrived and no longer wiggled, he wanted his money back for the dead worms.
Where do they find these people? “”I don’t personally,”” laughs Wapner. “”Researchers read files at various Small Claims courts, mostly in California. Then the potential guests are interviewed for their ‘TV worthiness.””
Wapner doesn’t deny some “”show biz”” influence sneaks into the show, and certainly each case is edited to be as entertaining as possible and also to fill time requirements. But Wapner doesn’t deal with any of that ‘show biz’ stuff. “”I just know the law,”” he says. “”And I’m very serious about the law.””