Blog: Much ado about the legal status of pets

Blog: Much ado about the legal status of pets

Veterinary profession, industry would be heavily affected by changes.
Apr 25, 2014
By staff

Readers of this blog are aware of my fondness for the Wall Street Journal, so it will come as no surprise that today’s blog is triggered by an April 14 Wall Street Journal guest article by author David Grimm: “Should Pets Have the Same Legal Rights as People?” Grimm is the author of a new, heavily publicized book, Citizen Canine (PublicAffairs, 2014), and is featured in recent interviews in Wired and National Geographic.

The issue has been around for decades, but the buzz is picking up as to whether modern society needs to reconsider how political systems and courts treat animals. Last year the Nonhuman Rights Project filed a lawsuit in New York on behalf of four chimpanzees contending that they should be legally recognized as people. The Texas Supreme Court recently reversed a lower court’s ruling that had thrown out the common law classification of animals as personal property for purposes of legal damages.

Law schools love this topic as a rich trove of philosophical and theoretical debate for eager students. For example, Michigan State University’s David Favre proposes a new category of “living property” that places animals in an intermediate category—with vast implications for veterinarians and animal health interests.

So what does this mean outside academia and in the daily lives of practitioners and pet owners? First, when popular media shows an interest, which we’ve seen accelerate in the first few months of this year, then you may hear the drumbeat grow louder. Creative lawyers, animal rights activists, law professors, third party advocacy groups—these experienced, knowledgeable players will use their considerable abilities to generate interest in the subject and draw followers to their cause.

Second, the stakes are high for all parties. Make no mistake: the costs of veterinary care will go up if a court turns the common law doctrine on its head and removes the barrier to non-economic damages anchored in the legal concept of pets as personal property. And if costs go up, does anyone really believe that access to pet healthcare will not be affected?

This is not a warning, just advance notice that the issue is not going away. It’s not a theoretical debate but a fundamental issue about how we as a society view animals and what we want from our courts when interests collide. The veterinary profession and industry stakeholders need to increase their engagement and focus on these issues. Specifically, we need to:

> Devote resources to engaging in the forums that count: law schools, state legislatures, and industry and animal welfare conferences.

> Send our advocates in to schools to debate and discuss the issues, providing intellectual balance where none exists today.

> Answer the media stories and interviews, providing our own perspective.

> Devote time and space at conferences such as CVC, NAVC, WVC and AVMA to open debate about these issues.

> Maintain ongoing dialogues with elected leaders.

There’s plenty of work to share, just no time to stay on the sidelines.

Mark Cushing, JD, is founding partner of the Animal Policy Group, providing government relations and strategic services for various animal health, veterinary and educational interests. He maintains offices in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., and is a frequent speaker at veterinary conferences.

The Veterinary Policy Notes blog on helps veterinarians and other animal health professionals keep abreast of the growing number of issues, political challenges and regulatory initiatives affecting the veterinary profession, animal health industry and animal welfare movement.