Many Americans today think of their pets as loving companions and family members, though American law still views them as property, according to Nadia S. Adawi, Esq., an attorney who specializes in animal law and serves as Vice Chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Animal Law Committee.
These opposing views, at times, result in heartbreak for pet lovers. For instance, if a pet owner were to sue after a dog or cat has been injured by a groomer or pet sitter, and win, he or she might expect to receive market value for their beloved pet which, for an aging shelter dog, may add up to no more than a few dollars.
From Feb. 23-27, the Fox Rothschild Center for Law and Society at Community College of Philadelphia held its 16th Annual Law and Society Week, which included a session, “Is the Law Going to the Dogs?” The session examined how the law is struggling to catch up with the rapidly evolving view of animals by society. More than 100 students, faculty and guests at Community College of Philadelphia packed an auditorium on Feb. 24 to consider the changing legal landscape in the nation, and how it might affect their pets.
Currently, about 68 percent of American households have a pet. There are 179 million cats and dogs living in American homes, according to the Humane Society of the United States. With the U.S. population tipping 319 million in 2014, that’s an abundant supply of pets. Consider that, in 2014, the population of humans—a.k.a. pet companions—was 12.7 million in Pennsylvania; 26.96 million in Texas and 6.5 million in Tennessee.
As pets have been transformed into celebrities, people walkers, therapy animals and guides, complex legal issues have begun to arise, Adawi says:
- Seventy-one percent of pet-owning women entering women’s shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims. Still, many domestic abuse shelters don’t accept pets, Awari says, making their choices difficult. Between 25 percent and 40 percent of battered women are unable to escape abusive situations because they worry about what will happen to their pets or livestock should they leave.
- People are creating trusts so their pets will be provided for after they die. The care of pets is becoming more important in estate law. Pet protection agreements, which are less expensive than trusts and allow people to name pet guardians, are gaining in popularity.
- Divorcing couples are fighting over pets and, in some cases, custody hearings have been held to determine where the pet will live after a couple splits. There are not pre-pup agreements (at least not yet), Awai says, but divorce courts are delving deeper into animal issues.
The laws under discussion right now will shape the direction of animal laws and are watched closely, she says. In Pennsylvania alone, 33 animal-related bills were introduced last session in the General Assembly. One of them, House Bill 1750, prohibited the raising or killing of
cats and dogs for human consumption. The measure won approval in the state Senate, but later was buried in the House Rules Committee.
A standoff developed after an amendment was attached to the bill prohibiting pigeon shoots, where captive birds are released and shot. At that point, the National Rifle Association joined the debate and legislators let the measure expire. The NRA called the proposed ban of ‘pigeon shoots’ a slippery slope, and said it could open the door to more restrictions on hunting.
Afterwards, people around the country poked fun at the state, after headlines blared: “It is still perfectly legal to cook your dog in Pennsylvania.”
Since animals are considered by law to be property, much like a chair or a table, they don’t have rights, Adawi says. Not now, at least. Some animal rights groups are hard at work trying to change that attitude, however.
New laws and court rulings are changing the petscape constantly, Adawi says, providing a “good way of looking at where we might be going in the future.”