When K and I were planning our wedding four years ago, we met with a lawyer to update wills, pensions, and other assorted paperwork. We each had a dog we loved madly, Quinn for him and Alfred for me, so we wanted to account for them should anything happen to one or both of us. We were quickly informed that our dogs were property just like a sofa or coffee table and would simply be part of our shared estate. Ouch!
I found that unsettling. And disagreed completely. Yes of course dogs — or cats or birds or whatever — are not people equivalent, but pets are living breathing beings who should have status above an ottoman… except maybe for iguanas, cuz they are creepy lizard statues.
In his new book Citizen Canine, David Grimm describes how the social status of dogs and cats has evolved, saying they are gaining some legal status now, and asking how far this should go.
Dog and cat ownership has quadrupled since the mid-1960s, and last year Americans spent a whopping $55 billion on their companion animals. Since the 60s, Grimm says “an equally dramatic transformation has taken place in the legal system”; while older laws dismissed cats and dogs “as worthless objects that didn’t even warrant the meager legal status of property” — they could be stolen or killed without repercussions — today’s pets, he says, have “become family in the eyes of the law.”
I think he is over-stating animal status; there are laws against abuse, but animals are still property, now with some protection: state legislatures have passed tough anticruelty acts, imposing fines and prison time on anyone who harms a cat or a dog, and “judges have begun awarding damages for mental suffering and loss of companionship to the owners of slain pets, legal claims typically reserved for the wrongful death of a spouse or child.”
There are stories of dogs inheriting money and having lawyers, and post-Katrina pets are now protected by laws in case of evacuations and other emergencies. Then again, here in the real world, there are also frequent news stories of puppy mills, violence towards pets, dogs used for experiments, and neglected animals left out in the cold.
Grimm concludes that more discussion and animal protections are needed, but warns that pet fanatics run the risk of treating animals as people and pursuing for them to get too many rights, up to ‘personhood’ status. He’s right… there needs to be a balance of protection from cruelty and enabling basic care, and also acknowledge that pets are not people. I love our dogs madly, and we do call them our ‘kids’, but they are still dogs… even though Alfie is cuter than most people. And smarter than some people. And yes he farts more than most people… and I certainly like him more than most people. Still not a person though.
Protecting animals, i.e. those who cannot protect themselves, is part of what makes us human… but to go too far will not help the world. Let’s provide for the care and protection for all animals… and oh yeah for all people too you right wing haters…