Do Pets Deserve Greater Legal Status and Protection?

News, Rights

A bill passed last month in France now affords pets more protection under the law. Dogs, cats, and other animals are no longer considered “moveable goods” but are “living beings capable of feelings” (or “êtres vivants doués de sensibilité” in the original French). The new definition affects pet owners and may usher in new suits regarding the treatment of animals in other arenas such as scientific research.

Petition to Change Definition of “Animal” in France Successful

The Socialist party sponsored the bill, which passed the National Assembly April 15th. The previous definition of “animal” came from the 1804 Napoleonic code and was considered outdated by the nearly 700,000 signers of an online petition requesting the change. The civil code was amended, bringing it more in line with the penal code and the rural code, which already consider animals living beings with feelings.

The change is not just about semantics. The new definition may allow pet owners to claim damages when their pets are killed, or allow them to leave their fortune to their pets when they die. It will also change how pet custody is handled in divorce cases.

Detractors of the new law fear that it will also lead to lawsuits challenging slaughter practices, farming, hunting, and scientific research involving animals.

Pets Are Property in the U.S.

In the U.S., pets are considered property. An owner suing someone over the death of a pet can only be awarded the fair market value of the animal and won’t be compensated for emotional distress. In divorce proceedings, the judge is likely to consider who purchased and owned the pet, rather than which household would be best for the animal’s future well-being.

The consensus on the status of animals in the law may be slowly changing, however. Charles Siebert reports in The New York Times Magazine on the efforts of Steven Wise to sue on behalf of a captive chimp named Tommy for its freedom. With evidence that chimpanzees have advanced cognitive abilities, Wise is in a better position to attempt a change of an animal’s status from “personal property” to “legal person.” (“Legal person” is a legal term that doesn’t refer only to individual people, but can also be applied to other entities, such as corporations.)

Wise believes that multiple favorable judgments in state courts, where law evolves more quickly, will lead to a change in federal courts and eventually the law. In the meantime, legislation addressing animal welfare is being proposed regularly across the U.S.