Making Headway in Animal Law

Posted by Stephanie Ulmer, Guest Blogger on January 20, 2011

Most of us reading this blog have always known that our companion animals mean much, much more to us than our iPod or other latest gadget, even though the initial investment to obtain either of them may have been the same. But the law has not been in lockstep with that thinking. Traditionally, companion animals have been thought of as mere “property,” in the same way as your iPod or similar gadget. Hence, if something “happened” to that “property,” the “owner” would only be entitled to recover the fair market value or replacement value of that “property.” If someone breaks your iPod, then they may buy you a new one as a replacement. No real pain and suffering (yes, you may be upset about losing some content), but a new iPod would roughly make you whole again, right? But if you paid $55 to adopt your cat and he was negligently killed, and you were only entitled to recover your $55 “investment” under the traditional view of the law, I definitely think that that small payment would fail to make you whole. In fact, that “hole” in your life, left by the death of your cat, would be a great deal harder to fill. Under the traditional view of the law, no attention would be paid at all to the cat’s pain and suffering, or to your emotional distress at having lost a member of your family. Alas, it is with great effort that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has worked to change this view of the law and get more courts to see the “actual” value of our companion animals when someone or something has harmed them.

So it is a tremendous step in the right direction that the Los Angeles Times recently published an article recognizing the inroads made as of late in the field of animal law. The article initially discusses a Maryland case in which a couple filed suit against their local sheriff after their Labrador was shot by sheriff’s deputies on their property.  The article comments that “legal experts say such cases are on the rise as pets are coming to be viewed as more than property — at home and in court.” Brandi survived her injuries but is believed to have suffered permanent harm from her wounds. Brandi’s family is seeking damages for reckless endangerment and infliction of emotional distress. The case is still pending.

The article further cites the changes that have recently occurred in the field of domestic violence law regarding animals and those that seek their protection in potentially dangerous situations. The article notes that "Courts in some jurisdictions have begun to make a link between domestic violence and cruelty to animals… If someone goes to court to get a protective order, it includes not just the victim and her children, but her pets can be included." These are indeed positive steps. And other constructive changes that were mentioned can be found in the fields of estate planning, custody, divorce and service animal law. In fact, the article states, the trends involving animals have been so great several law schools now offer animal law programs, classes and seminars.

It is refreshing to see that others are recognizing that animal law “…is growing as people insist that pets are not property, but part of the family.”