David Grimm, journalist and editor at Science, has published a book about our increasingly personal connection to our pets. This worthwhile read is called Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.
A central theme is cats and dogs’ path to legal personhood. The book explores answers to two questions.
- Do cats and dogs have legal status greater than that of property?
- Should cats and dogs gain legal status equal to that of persons?
Drawing on Citizen Canine, I’ll briefly answer (1) and then review responses to (2). I’ll critique analogies that compare cats and dogs to other groups that have been denied legal personhood, including blacks, women, children, and the developmentally disabled.
The legal answer to “Are pets more than property?” seems to be “No, but…” As Citizen Canine informs us, current US law dictates that cats and dogs are property. For instance, they can be bought and sold legally, just like toasters (author David Grimm’s go-to property example). But unlike toasters, cats and dogs are protected by felony anti-cruelty laws; can be beneficiaries of trusts and subjects of custody battles; and, in the event of their wrongful death, can net their owners loss of companionship damages, just like family members. Unsurprisingly then, the legal answer Citizen Canine explores for the “Pets > Property” question turns out to be “Maybe soon…”
That “Maybe soon…” may have an ominous ring to it—particularly for those who answer the “Pets = Persons” question with a firm “No.” The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) worries that if pets become legal persons, then veterinarians become more vulnerable to potentially crippling malpractice suits. The National Association for Biomedical Research (NABR) fears a slippery slope from pets’ rights to lab rats’ rights to no more scientists’ rights to study human diseases using animal subjects. Consequently, both AVMA and NABR actively oppose legal efforts to elevate cats and dogs’ legal status above that of property.
The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) supports such efforts. Nothing in Citizen Canine nor on ALDF’s site indicates the organization seeks pet personhood in the way that, say, the American Life League seeks federal recognition of human embryonic and fetal personhood. In other words, ALDF doesn’t appear to answer the “Pets = Persons” question with an unequivocal “Yes.” However, ALDF does promote an Animal Bill of Rights that calls for “animals to have their interests represented in court and safeguarded by the law of the land.” Property doesn’t have interests. Persons do. So legally establishing pet personhood would seem to be enough for cats and dogs’ interests to be represented and protected as ALDF advocates. (Whether it would be necessary is debatable. See legal scholar and animal rights supporter David Favre’s idea of living property, discussed in Citizen Canine.)