Should dogs have legal rights?
The question is not as crazy as it might sound. In Citizen Canine, author David Grimm explores this and many other questions about the rights, responsibilities, and roles of pets in contemporary life. He examines the history of pet life in American society as well as the legal status of dogs, cats, and other nonhumans. Along the way, he introduces readers to some interesting and influential people in the areas of animal welfare, animal law, animal rescue, and more.
Grimm is clearly an advocate for better treatment of dogs and cats and is very open to new possibilities — from laws that better protect pets and the people who love them to a radically new status for dogs and cats. But the book presents a mix of viewpoints and does an excellent job of presenting the very real questions posed by granting “legal personhood” to animals. Who would represent the interests of dogs and cats without families? Could a pet owner be jailed for failing to provide medical care to a standard determined by … whom? Could dogs sue people? Could they have their own money? How would we contend with the likelihood that veterinary malpractice insurance and lawsuits would dramatically increase the cost of vet care? Who would have legal standing to represent a pet? How would we handle getting dogs’ and cats’ consent before breeding (or neutering) them?
His discussion with a leader of the American Veterinary Medical Association reveals the fierce opposition among vets to any change in dogs’ legal status — and the hypocrisy of vets who appeal to pet owners by acknowledging the role of their pets as family members, and who offer, even encourage those owners to purchase vet care that costs thousands of dollars — then insist that a dog’s or cat’s value cannot exceed replacement cost. Like a toaster.
What I like best about this book is the many possibilities and viewpoints it presents. Some of the people Grimm interviews present the “personhood” question as black and white: Dogs must either remain with their current status, as property, with no more rights or protections than a toaster; or they must be elevated to a status equivalent to that of humans. As with most issues presented as a stark choice between two equally poor options, though, the reality is much more complex. Many of the objections raised, for example, can be resolved by looking for parallels in the way that we protect children’s rights or the rights of adult humans who cannot make their own legal decisions.
The final chapter introduces an idea that merits a lot of thought and that could provide pets with a status that more closely reflects their true position in our society. For details, you’ll have to read the book.