Rethinking pets as property

An article in the Los Angeles Times considering the aftermath of the massive pet food recall asks: A dog’s life: What’s it worth?. Of course, the story focuses on cats, too, but the point is, with the threat of lawsuits somewhat negated by the property status of animals, this incident provides the most thought-provoking examination of our relationship with domesticated animals since Hurricane Katrina.

Animals are more a part of our lives than ever, and many people are making closer connections with their companions than some skeptics imagine to be possible. One elderly couple in Hyderabad, India even went so far as to commit suicide after losing their “only child,” their dog companion whose death they apparently could not overcome. While this may be a particularly alarming example of devotion to one’s non-human companions, it’s not uncommon for U.S. citizens to consider dogs and cats (rabbits, ferrets and others, too) part of their family.

Unfortunately, when an animal is killed, the law treats animals as personal property, hardly different from the laptop computer upon which I am currently typing. It seems almost insane that this is still the case, when it is readily apparent that animals are autonomous sentient beings rather than merely objects, yet it takes major incidents like the food recall to force this conversation to the table and to get The Los Angeles Times to publish articles that deliberate the issue seriously, noting that pet “owners” seem more and more to expect damages for emotional distress in lawsuits against those who harm their companions. [Jon] Katz calls this “a seismic shift in humans’ relationship to pets that has occurred in recent decades.”

Unfortunately, the story’s writers quote this author and others critical of this shift liberally in the closing paragraphs, ending the article on a rather negative note:

As far as Katz is concerned, those human-pet bonds can be too intense. He’s troubled by people who consider their pets “fur children” or insist that losing a pet is similar to losing a child.

“As the father of a child and a dog lover, I know it’s not the same thing,” he said.

Bob Vetere, president of the American Pet Products Manufacturers Assn., a Greenwich, Conn.-based trade group, calls the pets-as-people trend “nonsense.” Vetere, a dog owner himself, said, “That guardianship stuff drives me crazy because there’s so much confusion that will result.”

For Barry Baum, a West Los Angeles veterinarian, the worry is that the legal changes regarding animals’ status could translate into higher malpractice insurance premiums. “More insidious,” he added, “will be the need to practice more defensively.” That may mean doing more tests on a pet and hiking the owner’s bill.

Giving animals a human-like legal identity might lead to higher liability awards if, for instance, a dog chokes on a chew toy, an airline misroutes a cat or an animal dies in a car accident, said law instructor Calnan. He also worries that “parties who want to represent the rights of pets could step in and object to euthanasia.”

Said Katz, “I don’t think people have thought through the consequences here.”

I can think of a number of people who might disagree and, in fact, the writers point to a 2004 survey in which half of North American pet “owners” responded that, if they were stranded on a desert island, they would pick a dog or cat as their sole companion rather than a person. I imagine most if not all of those people are single, or simply aren’t as happily married as I am, but I can certainly see where they are coming from!