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The Pros and Cons of Animal Rights Legislation

Updated on October 22, 2015
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Much Proposed Legislation Is Fraught With Unintended Consequences

Since the 1990’s there has been a rash of animal rights legislation…at the local, county, state and federal levels…that I’ve reported on. Though well intentioned, it is often neither well thought-out nor well crafted, but fraught with the promise of unintended consequences.

This article will cite a number of examples in the hopes that it will raise your awareness and inclination to act should similar legislation be proposed in your jurisdiction.

IN THE INTEREST OF FULL DISCLOSURE

Just keep in mind, please, that these examples include proposed legislation, adopted legislation, failed legislation and legislation that died in committee. Early on, I found it a daunting task to attempt to follow-up on all the various proposals, therefore I’ve chosen not to identify the jurisdictions involved simply because I am unaware of the law’s eventual disposition. I do identify those locales where certain legislation was enacted.

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DOES THE LAW SEE YOU AS AN OWNER OR A GUARDIAN?

To be an owner means to have or possess as property; to have control over. Property owners enjoy rights, powers, privileges and immunities in the particular things they own.

To be a guardian means to be one who is entrusted by law with the care of a person or property. Guardians have temporary and limited possession of the property. The guardianship right is granted by the government and can be arbitrarily revoked.

In most areas animals are legally regarded as property and, as such, pet owners’ rights as property owners are protected under the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

Which all sounds kind of callous and uncaring especially in an age that increasingly sees pets, especially dogs and cats, elevated to the status of full family member with all the benefits and privileges that such a designation bestows.

However certain well-intentioned, and not-so-well-intentioned, entities have gotten behind a movement to change the term pet owner to pet guardian supposedly in the belief that a guardian will treat animals more responsibly.

I’m not aware of any evidence to support that position and agree with most people who believe that an irresponsible and neglectful pet owner will also be an irresponsible and neglectful guardian.

OTHER UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF GUARDIANSHIP LAWS

● Owners have the sole responsibility to care for their pets, while guardians are typically part of a group effort with the courts and other unknown third parties. How would you like your local shelter volunteers or organized animal rights activists involved in decisions regarding your pet?

● Guardianship status would open the door to legal challenges to the course of treatment an animal's owner and veterinarian decide upon.

● Guardianship would expand tort law to allow the recovery of damages for emotional distress and loss of companionship in litigation involving animals.

● Guardianship would result in legislation that would allow owners to recover non-economic damages for the loss or injury of pets. In many jurisdictions, such rights of recovery aren’t available in cases involving the loss of human loved ones.

● Guardianship could force owners to seek a court order before making the humane decision to help end the suffering of a badly injured or terminally ill pet.


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Imagine that you’re out for a walk with your dog on a rainy day and some third party determines in his wisdom that you’re being an unfit guardian. Could he then seek to have you legally declared an unfit guardian? Even if he’s unsuccessful, is it right that you be put through the expense and inconvenience of having to defend such an accusation?

In the state of Rhode Island, the word owner was replaced by the word guardian several years ago. There, the term guardian applies also to someone who is temporarily responsible for an animal (pet-sitters or dog-walkers, for example), or someone who is casually responsible for an animal (the good Samaritan feeding feral cats, for example). Under the RI law, since people feeding feral cats are their legal guardians, they can be made responsible for vaccinating them against rabies.

There are laws already on the books that set standards for animal husbandry and that prescribe punishment for owners neglecting to maintain those standards. Some states, Rhode Island and my home state of Massachusetts among them, have made animal cruelty a felony, and others are considering that same move.

A lawyer friend of mine doesn't believe that laws addressing pet guardianship would have the same ramifications as those relating to human guardianship, and says that special laws would have to be written so that the two would be separate and distinct. Am I relieved to hear that? Nuh-unh.

To steal a slogan from Fox News Channel, “We report; you decide.”

OTHER EXAMPLES THAT MAY CAUSE YOU TO SHAKE YOUR HEAD

A city in Kansas passed an ordinance that limits the amount of time a dog can be tethered to one hour, with a three hour break in between each tethering. Shall we synchronize our watches?

In one Canadian province it is illegal to breed, own, sell, acquire or import Staffordshire bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, pit bull terriers, American pit bull terriers or any dog with "an appearance and physical characteristics that are substantially similar.” I wonder who gets to decide when “substantially similar” applies? Reasonable people can, and will, disagree.

The state of Ohio enacted legislation that deemed all pit pulls "vicious" and required their owners to confine them and purchase liability insurance. Ohio was, at the time, the only state to have a breed-specific law. Or, should I say, used to. Their Supreme Court said, "Nuh-unh."

In its 4-3 ruling the court said that the law is unconstitutional because it doesn't give dog owners the opportunity to appeal the dog's "dangerous" determination before criminal charges are filed against them.


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In one state’s proposed legislation stores wouldn't be able to sell ferrets less than 12 weeks of age (those that lack full adult dentition) and they'd have to be spayed or neutered. The latter requirement is not unreasonable, but the proposal stated they wouldn't be able to perform the surgery until the ferret was 10 weeks old.

Not only that, but the law would require a 7 day recovery stay at the surgical facility! Jeez, nowadays when we spay and neuter humans it's pretty much an outpatient procedure, isn't it?

Another state’s pols want to tack a fee onto bags and cans of dog and cat food. They say it could raise an additional 2 to 10 million dollars annually to raise money for the state's shelter system and spay/neuter programs. Yeah, right. How much you wanna bet they'll be building roads with that money.

This just in from our European bureau...pet owners in a wealthy town in central Italy must go above and beyond ordinary care for their pets or face fines as high as 500 euros. For example, canary owners must buy a “significant other” for their bird so it won't be lonely.

Further, dog owners must provide sufficiently spacious dog houses in shady, protected areas. I wonder who gets to define “sufficiently spacious” and “shady, protected.” Reasonable people can, and will, disagree.

An Ohio city’s proposal called for the city to purchase 1,000 microchips and install them in local cats. The proposal includes a $10 penalty for owners whose cats are picked up and returned to them. I wonder what other stuff your friendly local government will order done to your pets.

The controversies associated with some animal rights laws may pit animal advocates against big business, small business, environmentalists, medical researchers, entertainers and others. In most folks' view, sometimes the advocates are right on, other times they're over the edge.

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Consider the proposal of a California city to ban the retail sale of any live dog, cat or rabbit within city limits. It seems to me that the goal for such legislation should be to focus on closing down bad operators, not all operators. How about these other objections:

  • This proposal hurts a number of small businesses and would put residents out of jobs.
  • Limiting people’s right to get a pet only hurts the pet-loving public.
  • There is no credible research to suggest that someone who wants a purebred puppy and can’t obtain one will go to a shelter.
  • Putting legitimate pet stores out of business opens the door to underground markets.
  • Research demonstrates that pet store puppies are on average at least as healthy as those from any other source.
  • The vast majority of pet owners choosing a pet store animal are very happy with their pet. If not, there are laws to remedy such occurrences.

Animal hoarding has gotten some visibility in the print and electronic media in recent years and has spawned a flurry of activity to address the situation. Animal hoarding bills typically pertain to people who keep more pets than they can care for, but such bills, depending upon how they’re worded, can adversely limit legitimate pet dealers from selling animals. While well intentioned, they need to be carefully written.

When crafting animal rights legislation, perhaps it would be good to consider that the strong arm of government is best tempered with the soft touch of common sense.

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    • Larry Fields profile image

      Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

      Hi Bob. The expression "animal welfare legislation" sounds nice, but the devil is always in the details. You've described some nasty scenarios, of which I wasn't aware. Voted up and interesting.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for visiting and for the votes. Sometimes the legislation is crafted with the heart, not the brain, and the situations I cited demonstrate that.

      There has been a bunch of animal-friendly legislation that I think is good, and I'll do something on that down the road. I just wanted to take this opportunity to offer some food for thought because, as you say, animal rights legislation sounds good...who wouldn't be for that?

      Often times, though, the devil is indeed in the details.

      Thanks, again, for stopping by and commenting. Regards, Bob

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 4 years ago from Deep South, USA

      Sometimes you can't help but wonder if legislators are clicking on all cylinders when they draft these laws....

      I certainly don't think the term "guardian" would make someone suddenly become a better pet parent. You're right--animal rights legislation has a good sound, but more thought and logic should be used when composing it.

      Jaye

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Jaye, thanks for checking in. You're right, it's hard to confirm that lawmakers are firing on all cylinders, and no one is wondering why Congress' approval rating is just barely in the double digits.

      At the local level is where I think most of the bad laws seem to be written based on knee jerk reactions. If someone's Aunt Molly is afraid of pit bulls, they think it's OK to simply ban them.

      It's at the federal level where knee jerk reactions are replaced by a more well thought out, sophisticated sense of priority...as in when Congress took it upon themselves to establish and regulate the technological protocols of flush toilets.

      Our tax dollars are never harder at work than when Congress is in session.

      Nice to see you, glad you stopped by to comment. Regards, Bob

    • Ann1Az2 profile image

      Ann1Az2 4 years ago from Orange, Texas

      Good grief, it's bad enough that our Government is more into our private lives than ever before, what with heathcare and threats to close down the Internet. Now, they have to tell us how to care for our pets, too?

      Good hub and voted up.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
      Author

      Bob Bamberg 4 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Ann, I'm with you. I'd like to think that Americans are getting pretty fed up with our big, bloated government...that gets bigger all the time...and are fed up with a Justice Dept. that files lawsuits against states, stops private industry from building a plant in a "right to work" state, yet declines to prosecute voter intimidation by the New Black Panthers. Maybe things will change in November. They just better keep their paws off our pets, right? Thanks for commenting and voting, great to see you again. Regards, Bob

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