Spartan Lawyer Winter 2019
New Frontiers: Cannabis, Cars, and Companion Animals
We asked thinkers in three fast-moving legal fields for their best guesses about what's changing in the next decade. Here's what they had to say.
TEN YEARS OUT: COMPANION ANIMALS
The golden retriever snuggling on your sofa enjoys a more elevated legal standing than the sofa itself, right? Not so, under today’s laws. MSU Law Professor David Favre defines the current legal status of companion animals in straightforward terms: “Pets are property.”
Favre and the Animal Legal and Historical Center’s Associate Editor Rebecca Wisch, ’99, have spent decades considering the legal rights of animals, and they know that this reality can be tough to accept. Civil awards for the owners of injured or killed pets are limited to, as Favre puts it, “current market value and possibly the cost of repair.” For some animals, the market value can be shockingly low, even nonexistent. But he thinks that’s changing. “Every member of the public thinks that’s a stupid rule once you explain it to them,” he says.
Wisch concurs. “It’s hard to tell people, ‘look, your pet has a market value,’” she adds. “There’s a big difference between how our pets are valued under the law and how we, as individuals, value our pets.”
Favre thinks that one of the reasons that pets’ status hasn’t yet advanced is because lawyers lack a strong financial incentive to take on companion animal lawsuits. “It’s a warm and fuzzy issue, it’s not about money,” he says. “Things are changing, but there aren’t big cash settlements.”
FAMILY MEMBERS, FAMILY LAW.
Professor Favre believes the next ten years will see companion animal issues folded into the practice of family law, as the law increasingly treats a pet as (in Favre’s words) “a forever-child who isn’t collegebound.” Alaska, California, and Illinois have already passed laws allowing the courts to consider a pet’s well-being in making custody decisions. Custody doesn’t automatically revert to the partner who paid for the dog; rather, a judge can place the dog with the person who walks, trains, feeds, and cares for him.
The movement toward a new legal status for pets has built slowly. “There’s this evolution on the micro level of how we treat our animals, and right now, the law is catching up,” says Wisch. She observes incremental change: pet trusts exist in every state; small pieces of dicta issued from the bench offer recognition and sympathy to bereaved owners; pet custody decisions in divorces reflect the best interests of the animal; statutes allow attorneys to advocate for animal victims in anticruelty cases; 33 states permit pets’ inclusion in domestic violence protection orders.
“Property law shifts slowly as our values change,” says Favre, “and we have a much higher level of investment in our pets today.” Favre proposes creating a new legal category: living property, a middle ground between pets’ traditional status and full personhood. Animals already have a few legally recognized rights, like care for their physical well-being and freedom from human cruelty, and Favre thinks that the current legal system can accept a more expansive view of animals.
Fueled by the explosion of animal advocacy on social media, legislative action on behalf of pets is surprisingly bipartisan. In November 2019, a usually gridlocked Congress unanimously passed the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act. The universal support for the PACT Act speaks to politicians’ desire to publicly support pets. “It’s trendy for legislators to want their name on a dog bill,” notes Wisch. “Change is possible, because people on both sides love their animals.”
When asked about what kind of cases will advance the status of pets in the next decade, Favre points out that the future is, well, unknown.
“The needle-movers are interesting because they’re not predictable. They have to be real and honest – that’s what makes them matter.”
Thank You to Our Bold Prognosticators!
David S. Favre
Nancy Heathcote Professor of Property and Animal Law | MSU Law
Professor Favre is a leading scholar in animal law and has written extensively for legal academics and the public on that topic. He is an advisory council member for the Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Rebecca Wisch, ’99
Associate Editor, Animal Legal & Historical Center | MSU Law
Ms. Wisch analyzes statutes, cases, administrative regulations, and pending legislation pertaining to animal law. She writes animal law content for attorneys and the general public.