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Pets As Property?

U.S. Laws Send Mixed Messages


picture of man with three cats

Who is the property here?

Franny Syufy
While cats and dogs are considered beloved family members in homes all over the world, law in the United States takes a different view by generally treating pets as property with regard to lawsuits over "loss of companionship," along with the verdicts in some criminal cases.

The Noah's Ark Travesty

A widely publicized criminal case in Iowa in 1997 aroused interest all over the world among animal advocates, when the verdict and sentencing were directly tied to the perceived value of the animals in question: rescued cats living in the Noah's Ark Shelter. On March 7, 1997, three youths broke into the cat shelter in Fairfield, Iowa. Using baseball bats, they brutally bludgeoned 27 cats, leaving 17 cats dead and several others maimed for life. They were charged only with misdemeanor offenses, under "destroying property" as the value of "stray cats" was limited and did not justify felony "property destruction" indictments.

Although advocacy groups were able to get the Iowa laws strengthened as a result of the Noah's Ark case, other states are still buried in outdated case law, going all the way back to its roots in the U.K.

A Dog is Only Property

In August of 2005, a judge in Suffolk County, N.Y., threw out a "loss of companionship" case when she ruled that "a dog is only property." Elinore Leo, 91, of East Hampton was injured and her 14 year old toy poodle, Hooter was mangled by two unleashed Pit Bulls while Leo was walking the dog on a leash in her son's back yard. Although New York law will allow for medical and veterinary costs, emotional distress and loss of companionship are simply not in the books, as far as pets are concerned. (Tell that to Mrs. Leo, who remains devastated at the horror of the attack and the loss of her longtime companion, Hooter.)

What Should we Call Our Pets?

The semantics of regarding people as pet guardians vs pet owners is closely aligned to these issues. Several communities have tried to change the general mindset regarding pets by passing "pet companionship laws." San Francisco, CA, passed a law officially recognized "pet guardians" as opposed to "pet owners." Similar laws are on the books in San Diego, CA, Berkeley, CA, and in the state of Rhode Island. In 1993, legislation was introduced in the State of Colorado which would recognize pets as companions, rather than property. The law would have allowed lawsuits against veterinarians and other entities with damages up to $100,000 for loss of companionship.

Indeed, the IDA (In Defense of Animals) group snubs the name "pets," preferring "animal companion" or "animal friend." I had a bit to say about that concept in my article, What's Wrong With Owning Pet Cats?.

Treating "Property" Humanely

These court decisions present a further enigma, when viewed against our evolving humane laws. Almost every day, someone in the U.S. is arrested on criminal charges for the inhumane treatment of animals. Who of us is not familiar with at least one publicized case of cat hoarding? If animals are regarded legally as property only, how can they be treated inhumanely?

As an experiment, try to wrap your mind around the concept of treating a piece of property, such as a chair, "humanely." It doesn't make a lot of sense, does it when put in that perspective? Neither do these laws which label pets as property. We all know our cats are valued family members and companions for life, and no law should ever be allowed which violates that connection.

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