Pet column: Court decisions begin to honor animals
November 13, 2012
The law considers pets to be property like a toaster or a car. That is changing in today’s courtrooms. At a recent conference, guest speaker Pamela Frasch, JD, assistant dean of the Animal Law Program and executive director of the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, quipped that America’s courtrooms have become stages for “poor dog” poems about man’s best friend. Faced with increasingly complex decisions in pet custody and animal cruelty cases, judges are making their feelings known, reflecting the elevated status of the family pet. Contemporary judges and attorneys can refer to a precedent — the famous 1870 oratory by the attorney who represented the owner of Old Drum, a dog killed by a neighbor.One of the most famous “poor dog” speeches ever, it was crafted and delivered by George Vest, later a Missouri state senator. Rather than referring to trial testimony, Vest appealed to the jury with the colorful and moving “Tribute to the Dog” as the speech became known. The jury returned a verdict awarding not just the $50 requested, but an unprecedented $500 in damages. At the time, it was impossible to send the perpetrator to jail, but it the jury would have done so if it were. Portions of the speech have been used in movies and repeated in today’s courts of law. Vest won the defendant’s appeal at the Missouri Supreme Court level as well. On Oct. 16, 1914, “Tribute to a Dog” was read into the Congressional Record by the Hon. Clement C. Dickenson, of Missouri. The classic eulogy is engraved on the bronze statue of Old Drum which stands in front of the Johnson County courthouse in Warrensburg, Missouri,Frasch points out that judges now are considering pet relations, especially with children, in addition to traditional legal “ownership” The value of the family pet is being recognized with emotional distress compensation awards as noneconomic damages in domestic disputes. The dog is considered the gateway animal for future animal cases involving like damages. In addition to family pet custody and animal cruelty penalties, new trends in animal law include farmed animal treatment prior to slaughter, animal testing, and establishment of animal abuse registries patterned after the Megan’s Law sex offender registries. At this time, the Dakotas are the only states without felony animal cruelty statutes.Interviewed for NewTimes.com by Sue Manning of the Associated Press, Frasch observed “But while laws have improved and grown, there is still a disconnect between what animals deserve and what protections they get.” She described animal-related law “so broad and so deep, it touches every other area of law.” Some examples are contract law in tenant disputes over weight limits in leases; anticruelty laws that hinge on criminal law; and estate law as more pet owners include animals in wills and trusts. Madeline Bernstein, animal law attorney and president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Los Angeles, comments that good lawyers can change laws affecting millions of people and animals with just one case whereas law enforcement can only do so much, one arrest at a time.An early signal that humane animal treatment is becoming a cultural priority was the 2008 National Academy of Sciences announcement to phase out toxicity testing on animals. Just weeks ago, hope for humane consideration of animals in the legal system was evidenced in an opinion by Justice Kathryn Doi Todd in California’s Second District Court of Appeals. She ruled that pets are fundamentally different than other forms of property: “Given the reality that animals are living creatures, the usual standard of recovery for damaged personal property — market value — is inadequate when applied to injured pets. Animals are special, sentient beings, and unlike other forms of property, animals feel pain, suffer and die.”A resource for keeping track of California animal legislation passed and pending is Paw PAC at http://www.pawpac.org.— Provided by the Lake Tahoe Humane Society and Soceity for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to help “Keep Tahoe Kind”. Dawn Armstrong is the executive director.