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Decreasing animal abuse... should be accomplished by strengthening the animal cruelty laws, not by adopting a dogmatic approach to humanizing animals.



A Legal System Going to the Dogs

"Who Let the Dogs Out" may be an entirely different tune if animal rights advocates get their way in Colorado. In fact, dogcatchers, veterinarians, pet groomers, pet sitters and even those chic new pet salons could find themselves facing increased liability for letting the dogs out should harm then come to Lassie, Benji, Spike or Fluffy.

Colorado lawmakers are entertaining a bill that would make dogs and cats legal "companions" instead of property, effectively allowing people to sue veterinarians or animal abusers for "loss of companionship." Under the proposal, pet owners (oops, we mean companions) could seek damages of up to $100,000 if a person hurts or destroys the pet companion relationship in a negligent or intentional way by causing the pet's death. In other words, pet care providers better keep a close eye on the four-legged family members entrusted them to avoid a lawsuit.

A claim for loss of companionship would be closely analogous to a claim for loss of consortium, except that the latter compensates for the harm done to the marital relationship, while a loss of companionship would compensate for the harm done to the relationship between a master and dog or cat.

The Colorado Veterinary Medical Association is opposed to the measure and, in light of the current disastrous state of our human health care system, its members are quite correct in wanting to keep the effort on a short leash. "Veterinarians will have to pass on to consumers the increased costs of doing [business], including time spent responding to frivolous lawsuits and additional diagnostic tests that will now be required to practice defensive medicine," the association said in a statement.

No offense to the 2 million dogs and cats in the 1.6 million households in Colorado but has anyone stopped to consider the ridiculousness of this proposal? Will divorce proceedings have to include "petamony" payments? What will happen to Colorado's zoological parks? If the property status of animals is changed, could animals hold legal rights and sue for loss of companionship when the master dies?

Colorado already is among 14 states legally recognizing pets as beneficiaries, allowing people to leave money and property to them. Current law classifies cats and dogs as property, and pet owners can seek only "fair market value" in a lawsuit. Boulder was the first city to make pet owners "guardians" for their furry friends, followed closely on the heels by the California cities of Berkeley, San Francisco and West Hollywood and the State of Rhode Island.

Most courts have refused to permit pet owners to recover damages for emotional distress or loss of companionship. Before adopting legislation that expands the legal right to recover for loss of Fido's companionship, it is important to acknowledge and resolve the current controversies surrounding rights for the loss of companionship in parent-child and same-sex partner relationships. In these situations, the legal response differs drastically from state to state. Some states' statutes provide recovery only for pecuniary injury, while other state courts have at times interpreted pecuniary injury to include damages for loss of companionship.

Decreasing animal abuse, to the extent that the problem exists, should be accomplished by strengthening the animal cruelty laws, not by adopting a dogmatic approach to humanizing animals.

With our current human health care system in crisis, both legally and financially, all branches of government, at federal, state and local levels, should make their pet projects the adoption of momentous changes to curb tort abuse. This effort should not be dogged by attempts to expand tort liability in non-human situations.

[Posted February 13, 2003]

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