The sad fate of a flock of sheep could spur a Massachusetts court to set a major precedent in the 20-year battle for animal rights. The issue: Should a couple whose sheep were ripped to pieces by a neighbor's dogs be awarded damages for their mental anguish over the loss?
The bereaved owners argue their animals were more like their children than livestock, allowed free access to their house, taken along on vacations and fed Dunkin' Donuts. If the couple wins, Massachusetts will come close to endorsing the credo that animal rights activists have been pushing for decades – that people don't "own" animals. Instead, they're guardians, who must respect and protect an animal's basic rights.
Tennessee has already reached that milestone, becoming the first state in the country to allow pet owners to recover damages for the loss of "society, love and companionship" of a cherished animal.
Animals have never been afforded the same status under the law as people. And, until recently, if an animal was wrongfully hurt or killed, courts have generally awarded only the value of the animal, not damages for the human owner's anguish.
States Move to Grant Animals Rights
A few states have inched cautiously toward granting animals legal rights. New York State law doesn't allow for compensating pet owners who suffer emotional distress when their pets are harmed, but will assign a monetary value to the loss of companionship, said David Wolfson, a lawyer in New York City who sometimes takes animal-rights cases for free. Hawaii and Florida do allow court awards for the human's emotional distress.
"At some point, most judges will say a person's dog is not like a piece of inanimate furniture," Wolfson said.
The city of Boulder, Colo., recently passed an ordinance that changes the term "animal owner" to "animal guardian," a move that has no legal impact because the state's law continues to regard pets as property. Still, it's a message that may help end human mistreatment of animals, said Dr. Elliot Katz, a veterinarian who founded In Defense of Animals, based in Mill Valley, Calif.
"When people are recognized and treated as the animal's guardian, they will treat the animal with more responsibility, not just say, 'This is my animal; I can do what I want with it,'" Katz said.
"Here and there, animals are getting rights, a little at a time," said Michael Rotsten, a lawyer who has won sizeable awards from California judges, some of whom are willing to dole out punitive awards for harming a pet.
The Case of Lonnie
Rotsten handled the case of Helen Evers, owner of a Rottweiler named Lonnie. The Costa Mesa, Calif., woman had taken Lonnie to a veterinarian who pulled his front teeth and cut his nails to the quick, Rotsten said. The dog was left in agony, his mouth and paws infected. Evers was awarded almost $28,000 in damages, a portion to repair the damage to Lonnie and the rest for her emotional distress. It's believed to be the largest award ever against a veterinarian.
If that trend keeps up, veterinarians will have to hike their fees, said Susan Weinstein, executive director of the Southern California Veterinary Medical Association.
"To award pain and suffering and emotional damages is contrary to the decisions of the United States courts and it's a tremendous stretch," said Weinstein, adding, "This should not be construed as vets being uncompassionate."
Veterinarians buy malpractice insurance now, but Weinstein predicted costs would rise. "Certainly there would be higher fees, greater costs for insurance. I don't think the result would be greater respect for animals, which is the premise behind some of these ideas," she said.
Internationally, animal-rights advocates are pressing for an even more ambitious goal – a United Nations declaration that great apes, like gorillas and chimpanzees, are "persons" with some of the same rights as humans, including the right to humane treatment.
Still unanswered is how fast and far the society will change, and what forces will bring that about, said Wolfson. "There's a real debate about what comes first – does the law change society or does society change the law," he said. "This is a little bit of both."