By: Diane M. Sullivan, Assistant Dean, and Holly Vietzke, Professor of Law
Those of us who teach animal law know that one pervasive theme resonates throughout our courses: American society conveniently classifies animals as property, oftentimes, as expressed in existing law, worth nothing more than a piece of merchandise – – and a low-priced one at that.
That treatment inevitably leads to the most basic question of how a society as great as ours can equate life – – any life, much less woman’s best friend – – with a piece of furniture or even the latest iPhone. We all must find a way to answer the question debated in our classrooms and in scholarly research. How can the law better protect our animals, our pets, and yes, our companions, when they most need sanctuary from harm’s way?
Legal textbooks on animal rights are replete with judicial decisions that, in case after case, make all too clear that the law does nothing to genuinely protect animals. It certainly does not recognize their true value and special place in our homes. Our legal system fails to recognize the bond between us and our pets when that bond has been severed, and therefore completely fails to compensate for that loss.
First, we need to vigorously prosecute those who abuse, neglect, or harm animals. The good news is that penalties for these actions are now more severe. The not-so-good news is that many police chiefs and district attorneys do not pursue these stronger penalties because they still have a mindset that an animal is property with no rights and little protection under the law.
Second, those of us who care about the welfare of animals must bring about a change regarding the classification of “standing” in animal cases. Standing is a legal term that is defined as a right to initiate a lawsuit. Historically, someone seeking relief on behalf of a harmed animal has very little power to so do. Lawsuits could be more easily advanced on behalf of animals if the law in all states were changed to provide relaxed standing rules when bringing cases on behalf of animals.
There is resistance to reclassifying animals from commercial interests which brand animals as chattel. Animals are defined as property because it is convenient … and profitable. This allows them to be exploited, harmed, and used for experimentation and entertainment, all with impunity.
Our unfortunate history shows that slaves, women, and children were previously treated as property. The law was changed to stop this deplorable treatment. It is time to reclassify the legal status of companion animals.