Should D.C. Law Force You to Say Your Dog is Your “Property” if You Donít Agree?

Jay Johnson loves his beagle, Liam, with all his heart. Though he’s shared his home with his beloved rescue dog for nearly a decade, he’ll never tell you he’s Liam’s “owner.” He’s Liam’s guardian.

Oddly, publicly stating that he doesn’t “own” Liam could get Johnson fined or even arrested in the District of Columbia. Surprised?

It’s true. A provision of D.C.’s Animal Control regulation prohibits “knowingly and falsely deny[ing] ownership of any animal.”

As an animal activist and frequent public speaker on the issue of animals as property, Johnson sees D.C’s regulation as an infringement of his First Amendment right to free speech. To ensure he and others can talk about this issue freely and publicly when in D.C., he’s challenging the constitutionality of this provision of D.C. law.

Animals as Property

Most of the time, sadly, the law treats companion animals no differently than they treat your refrigerator or your sofa. They’re considered your “property” and nothing more. This has meant, for example, that lawsuits over the injury or death of a beloved pet often resulted only in reimbursing the plaintiff for the animal’s “fair market value” or “replacement cost” rather than the costs of the pet’s medical care, its pain and suffering, and the guardian’s attorney fees for seeking such restitution.

In many cities across the country, however, this perception of an animal’s legal status is slowly changing. A number of governmental bodies have added the term “guardian” to their animal-related municipal codes. They’ve done so in recognition of the fact that for many of us, animals are family, not commodities.

Liams Life, Then and Now

For the first four years of his life, Liam the beagle lived a hellish existence as a research dog for Abbott Laboratories. He wasn’t known as Liam then. He was beagle number 8888884. How does Johnson know Liam’s life was so tragically cruel?

In an essay written by Johnson in 2010, he says it was crystal clear from the moment he met Liam:

People sometimes ask me how I can know that. How I can know what it was like for Liam in the lab? I know because I was the first person to see him when he came out. When Liam came to live with me, he was terrified. Not just of his new surroundings, but of everything. The sound of metal clinking, the feel of grass or anything soft, it all scared him.

The thing that broke my heart most, was that he was afraid of me as well. When I touched him, he would put his head down and put his tail between his legs. The only touch he had known had been the touch that was always followed by something painful. Something unpleasant. I could see it in his eyes when I touched him, he was afraid of what I was going to do to him. Afraid that myself and my friends would treat him exactly how all the other humans he had ever encountered had. As a thing. A tool. Nothing more than a number.

These words crush your soul a little, don’t they? These were four years of a life so bad it made this little dog afraid of absolutely everything.

Jay Johnson and Liam the beagle

Jay Johnson and Liam, happy together. Photo credit: Jay Johnson

Today, of course, Liam lives a happy, secure life with Johnson and knows he’ll never face the shocking cruelties of life in a research laboratory again. It’s a hope-filled future we’d wish for every innocent, helpless animal still held in labs around the world.

D.C.s Regulation and its (Perhaps Unintended) Effect on Free Speech

So why can’t Jay Johnson discuss Liam’s life and the fact that he does not view Liam as his property? Eleven words in the D.C. code are to blame.

Included in the “Prohibited Conduct” section of D.C.’s Animal Control regulation is section 8-1808(b), which says: “No person shall knowingly and falsely deny ownership of any animal.” According to Johnson’s complaint:

Each time Johnson would deny ownership of Liam in the District of Columbia, he would be subjected to arrest; a fine of up to $100; mandatory collateral posting of $5,000; and either the forfeiting of the $5,000 collateral, or a trial. These penalties have worked to prevent Johnson from scheduling and giving a speech about Liam in the District of Columbia and from privately speaking, denying ownership of Liam.

Of course, the likely reason this subsection is part of the regulation is to keep people from avoiding liability for animal-related incidents like dog bites or escaping accountability for incidents of animal neglect or cruelty. The problem is that the prohibition makes any assertion by Johnson that Liam is not his “property” just as culpable under the law.

Who’d enforce this law in that speech-stifling way? Maybe it would never happen — but it could. That’s enough. If a law can be used against them, seasoned animal activists know eventually it will be.

What Jay Johnson’s lawsuit seeks, in part, is a declaratory injunction that section 8-1808(b) is either unconstitutional on its face, or at least unconstitutional as applied to Johnson’s public and private speaking.†Mr. Johnson is represented by attorney Jeffrey Light.

Johnson filed his lawsuit in late December 2013. The government has not yet filed its response. This one’s worth watching to see just how D.C. and Jay Johnson work this issue out. Johnson has important things to say. He’d like to be able to say them in the District of Columbia.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Batista S.
Past Member 1 years ago

Your contents are too straightforward to browse and easy to understand.
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Jim Ven
Jim V2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Lynda H.
Lynda H3 years ago

Was that directed to me, Tricia?

Tricia Hamilton
Tricia Hamilton3 years ago

They are family and friends to a majority of humans. Stop what you are trying to do. It is horrible. This will give people the right to kill them with no protection under the law.

Lynda H.
Lynda H3 years ago

Well, Suba, I don’t agree with all of your hypothetical conclusions, but most of them I do and very much appreciate the intelligent thought behind it.

Lynda H.
Lynda H3 years ago

If “something happens” and the animal is suffering, how do the authorities determine who is responsible for their care? A person who has neglected the animal might say “it isn’t mine” and avoid charges of animal cruelty.

I was a ‘guardian’ to a colony of homeless and feral cats because I fed them, medicated them and neutered them, one by one. But I did not own them, and the ranger was instructed to ‘get rid of them’ (by the local vet!). I trapped them all again and brought them home.

Now I OWN them: I am not their “guardian”. They cannot mate or hunt and are not free to roam (they would be killed and I would be fined thousand$) but they have room to run, comfortable shelter, clean water, free health care, full tummies and a life without fear and stress, and in return I have the pleasure of their affection, their beauty, and of watching them play and enjoy their lives. Nature does not offer this to any animal: this is the contract of ownership.

Tammy Baxter
Tammy B3 years ago

tricky question but I believe you can never own a animal. You ARE, however, responsible for their care and if something happens.

Dianne T.
Dianne T3 years ago

This sis a tricky question - the pertinent part of it is 'under the law' .