Maryland Blogger Alliance

Alliance FAQs

Latest MBA Posts

June 06, 2005

Do dogs have standing?

According to Justice William O. Douglas, trees should have standing (to sue), so why not dogs?

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune reports on a trend in the law favoring expansion of litigation and recovery for injuries to pets, including, of course, malpractice actions against veterinarians.

The veterinarian botches routine surgery, and now the family cat resembles something out of Stephen King's "Pet Sematary." Or that "miniature poodle" puppy you got from a breeder has grown to 90 pounds and looks more like a dingo-bulldog mix.

Pet owners traditionally had little legal recourse in situations such as these. In every court system, animals have been considered property. But animal advocates and attorneys along with their clients are making headway in getting the legal system to recognize what society increasingly believes:

Animals are more than just property. They're like family.
Now, this trend doesn't really require dogs to have standing. It's the owners (excuse me, the dogs' humans, who sue), and the injury is to the owner, not to the animal, but the idea behind it is that pets are more valuable to people than we've previously accepted in the law. There's something a little self-indulgent about this, but if that were it, it would all be pretty harmless.

The trouble is that the goal of the reformers, ultimately, is to transform pets from their current status in the law as property into beings with a higher status, akin to that of humans. But the consequence of that inevitably is to lower the status of humans. This is not just my opinion. Another Tribune article refers to Steven M. Wise, an animal rights lawyer, who runs the Center for the Expansion of Fundamental Rights, and is the author of Rattling the Cage: Toward Legal Rights for Animals (which I have not read and have no intention of reading). I did check out Wise's website, which says this, in describing his book:
A human lost in a permanent vegetative state enjoys a large array of legal rights. But a chimpanzee - a creature who can communicate with language, count, understand the minds of others, feel a variety of emotions, live in a complex culture, and make and use tools - has no rights at all.
The argument here is not that animals should have equal rights with humans, which is itself an extreme position, but that some animals have more entitlement to rights than some humans, based on someone's notion of their relative cognitive abilities. A smart chimp, on this theory, might be entitled to greater rights than a profoundly retarded human.

The whole notion that rights are dependent on cognitive ability leads us down a very dangerous road. The book of Genesis tells us that man was created in the image of God, and a not very religious man famously wrote that we are "endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights." You don't have to be religious at all to be troubled by the idea that if rights become dependent on cognitive ability, they will be divorced from the unique innate nature of humanity. I would venture that disabled humans who rely upon highly trained animals to help them with their daily activities would understand better than almost anyone else where this line of argument leads.