January 20, 2014 MILTON, Ga. — In elementary school, Milton resident and attorney Claudine Wilkins knew she wanted to work with animals.
"As a kid, I couldn't wait to read the newest issue of National Geographic," she said. "I was inspired by Jane Goodall's belief that every life has value and viewed her as my mentor."
At 16, Wilkins got a job as a veterinarian assistant, but said ultimately she was drawn to a career in law.
"I was attracted to the fact that it dictates how we behave in society," she said. "I do what I do because of my love for children and animals."
She admits some of the highlights of her career involved her mentor and her favorite childhood magazine.
"In law school I got to interview Jane Goodall for the school newspaper," she said. "And in June of 1998, I was featured in National Geographic magazine for rescuing a lion cub living in a car."
Now a nationally known expert in animal law, Wilkins found a way to combine her two passions.
In 1996, Wilkins began her law career as a prosecutor and then moved into personal injury law, but a case of animal cruelty forced her to take action.
"When I heard that a man who beat a puppy to death would only receive a fine and a simple ordinance violation, I knew something had to change," she said.
Wilkins was successful in upping the charge to a felony and the man went to jail.
"Equally as important," she said, "the case received a lot of public attention, but I knew more needed to be done."
She said the prosecutor on the case didn't even know there was a felony provision for that kind of crime.
Wilkins created a training package that would teach law professionals how to prosecute animal cruelty and why it should be taken seriously.
"I tried to get my boss at the time to let me conduct the training, but he failed to see its importance," she said.
Wilkins continued to push the issue, which led to a case involving an emaciated Chow Chow covered in mange.
"The dog was in horrible condition," she said. "And I was worried the little girl that lived there might be, too."
Wilkins convinced a special agent to check on the child, who discovered the girl hadn't been in school for four months and was severely malnourished.
"Animal abusers are often linked to abuse cases involving children and the elderly," she said. "So in essence, the dog abuse situation saved the child."
Tired of the pushback from her boss, she quit her job and opened her own firm.
In 2003, the Georgia Bar and Georgia Continuing Legal Education hosted Wilkins' first seminar.
"It was a huge hit," she said. "The chairs were filled with judges, police, animal control officers and members of the local D.A.'s office."
Since then, the attorney has trained more than 2,000 professionals in prosecuting animal cruelty cases as well as authored the manual "How to Prosecute Animal Cruelty from Start to Finish."
But Wilkins' devotion to animals didn't lessen her commitment to people, and she said many of her conferences also focus on domestic violence.
"Research shows that many abusers start abusing a pet in front of the victim to gain control over them, and then the victim stays to protect the animal," she said.
She works with Ahimsa House, the only shelter in Georgia that exclusively takes in the pets of abused victims fleeing domestic violence situations.
In 2004, the attorney gained national attention with a landmark victory in a drunk-driving case in which she represented the families of two teenagers killed by a drunk driver.
"This case marked one of the largest verdicts in the country against a drunk driver and the establishment that served him," she said.
The case received national exposure, but the victory was only symbolic for the teens' families since the money would never be collected.
"I took the case to ensure that more cases like this one could reach a verdict holding accountable both offenders and the establishments that serve them," Wilkins said.
The same year, she initiated, drafted and lobbied an animal cruelty bill that eventually passed in 2006.
"Before that law was revamped and strengthened, Georgia had one of the worst laws in the nation," she said. "Hardly anyone served jail time for animal cruelty."
Since the law passed, Georgia law enforcement has completed about 35 raids resulting in about 54 arrests and saved about 900 animals.
Cindy Wiemann, secretary of the Georgia Animal Control Association who also works for the city of Madison Animal Control, said Wilkins continues to be a valued resource for animal advocates statewide.
"Claudine is not only committed to helping animals, she is always available to assist animal control officers who need a helping hand in seeking justice in animal cruelty cases," she said. "Not every county has a prosecutor that is as knowledgeable with the animal cruelty statutes as Claudine."