We love our pets as if they were people, but does that mean they should be considered people in the eyes of the law? National Geographic interviewed David Grimm, author of the new book “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,” for a look at the recent development in the legal status of animals, and his take is enlightening.
Biologically, animals are not humans. Not many are likely to dispute that fact. Still, that doesn’t alter the debate pet owners have about whether pets can be considered “people” in the eyes of the law. After all, in a country where judges have declared corporations to be “people,” is it all that far-fetched for pets – actual breathing, affectionate creatures, to be granted the same status?
It comes down to an issue of what rights animals should be granted. While the wave of animal cruelty laws is probably the most prominent sign of change, it goes well beyond laws that protect their personal safety. You can tell that cats and dogs are gaining legal other rights just by looking at cases that have hit the courts in recent years. Not only have pets been the subject of intense divorce custody battles, some pets have even received their own legal counsel in order to represent their own best interests. Pet owners have also gained ground in being able to sue for large sums of money in the case of an accidental deaths (in the same way they might for a relative) to make amends for the mental and emotional suffering of the tragedy.
Grimm offers two strong reasons for why humans are more attached to their animals than they were years ago. First, humans see fewer animals today than they did generations ago. Whereas it used to be common to see horses and pigs in your community, society has developed in such a way where not everyone owns animals and encounters with wild animals are less frequent. As a result, people don’t think about the distinction between humans and animals as often. Second, people no longer live in large family units with grandparents, cousins and children all under one roof. Welcoming pets into our homes means we’re making them parts of our family and having them fill some of our emotional needs that humans used to.
Surprisingly, one of the leading organizations attempting to prevent pets from gaining personhood is the American Veterinary Medical Association. On the one hand, vets hope that pet owners consider their animals to be part of the family, as it means that they are willing to pay for expensive procedures. On the other hand, vets are not in favor of having this personhood status solidified legally. If animals were afforded this right, vets would suddenly be open to a variety of malpractice suits. “When we view our pets like children, we sue like they are children when things go wrong,” Grimm said.
Forget financial concerns, though; philosophical and ethical concerns make the prospect even more complicated. Should humans be allowed to spay and neuter their pets without having consent from the animals themselves? Forced sterilization is a definite no-no amongst humans. Moreover, should people be allowed to buy and own pets? If animals are considered people, that scenario starts to seem more like some form of slavery.
One thing is for certain: as more American families become pet owners, this question will continue to be raised. How do you feel? Should animals gain “personhood” status or would that distinction raise more problems than the additional legal protections would be worth?