“Dogs are wonderful creatures,” read the first line of a ruling from a Canadian judge.
Over the next paragraph, the judge continued singing the praises of man’s best friend: Dogs are often highly intelligent, he wrote. Sensitive. Active. Constant and faithful companions.
“Many dogs are treated as members of the family with whom they live,” the judge noted.
But none of that matters when it comes to the court of law, concluded Justice Richard Danyliuk of the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan. At least not in his court of law.
“After all is said and done, a dog is a dog,” Danyliuk wrote in an August ruling that was recently reported by CBC News. “At law it is property, a domesticated animal that is owned. At law it enjoys no familial rights.”
Danyliuk would spend 15 more pages outlining why – in this case of a divorcing couple arguing over what would become of their pets – the court could not treat the dogs in question as “children.”
The case landed in court after the wife argued that she should keep their three dogs – 13-year-old Quill, 9-year-old Kenya and 2-year-old Willow – while allowing for visitation rights of an hour-and-a-half at a time to her soon-to-be ex-husband.
Danyliuk noted that the woman’s request was “more akin to an interim custody disposition than it is to a property order” and that he could not comply, because for legal purposes, dogs must be treated as property.
He was firm in his ruling.
“I say without reservation that the prospect of treating pets as children would be treated holds absolutely no attraction for me,” Danyliuk wrote, while acknowledging that many dog owners do treat their dogs as family members. “My present task is not to act with emotion or to validate the personal perspective of pet owners within the legal context. Rather, it is to interpret and then apply the law. And for legal purposes, there can be no doubt: Dogs are property.”
Danyliuk elaborated further by citing other cases and arguing that dealing humanely with pets and considering them property were not mutually exclusive.
In one section of the ruling, Danyliuk used what he called a “somewhat ridiculous example” of butter knives to make his point about “what I see as a somewhat ridiculous application.”
“I strongly suspect these parties had other personal property, including household goods,” he wrote. “Am I to make an order that one party have interim possession of (for example) the family butter knives but, due to a deep attachment to both butter and those knives, order that the other party have limited access to those knives for 1.5 hours per week to butter his or her toast?”
Danyliuk suggested that the case should have never landed in his courtroom in the first place.
“I am sure that to [the divorcing couple], this is the most important matter,” Danyliuk wrote. But, he added: “To consume scarce judicial resources with this matter is wasteful. In my view, such applications should be discouraged.”
David Grimm, author of “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship With Cats and Dogs,” said Danyliuk’s ruling is not unusual, because under U.S. and Canadian laws, animals are considered property.
“Which means that they basically legally have the same status as a couch or a toaster,” Grimm told The Washington Post. “That’s what it is sort of in theory.”
In practice, however, things can become muddled – particularly when it comes to household companion animals like cats and dogs.
In his book, which covers the evolving status pets have had within the U.S. legal system, Grimm noted that pets can now be beneficiaries of trusts in most American states. In a few, rare instances, some animals have been assigned lawyers.
In addition, Grimm also noted that all 50 states have felony animal cruelty laws, and punishments in animal abuse cases are up to 10 years in prison or $125,000 in fines in some states.
“Clearly, nobody’s going to fine you for setting your couch on fire or taking a bat to your toaster,” Grimm said. “There are things like that where clearly the law is treating animals . . . differently than other types of property.”
That was not the case in the 1800s, however, when animal anti-cruelty legislation described the offense as a misdemeanor at first. Only in the last 20 to 30 years did animal cruelty become a felony offense, he said.
That evolution has, in part, mirrored people’s changing relationship with their household pets. People in the United States spent more than $60 billion on their pets in 2015, a figure that has increased steadily from about $20 billion more than two decades ago, according to the American Pet Products Association.
These days, dogs (and, to some extent, cats) might be sent to doggy day care, eat organic pet food, attend pet spas and watch dedicated TV channels. They wear clothing, appear in family photos and participate in rituals and activities – vacations, weddings, funerals – people typically reserve for other human beings.
“We’ve sort of reached this really interesting relationship with our companion animals,” Grimm said. “Just because we treat pets like children [at home], does that mean we should treat them like children in the eyes of the law? And I think that’s causing a lot of divisions among legal scholars and in the general public.”
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for animals’ legal interests, has argued that considering pets strictly as property is too narrow of a view.
Anti-cruelty laws do not exist for toasters, evidence that the law recognizes that animals deserve special protection, according to ALDF attorney Stefanie Wilson.
At least one state – Alaska – has, by law, empowered courts in divorce proceedings to consider the animal’s well-being in making a custody determination, she added.
“Arguably, almost all courts have the discretion and authority, in a divorce case, to appoint a special guardian or master to consider and make recommendations for the best outcome for Fido,” Wilson wrote in an email to The Post. “The law is starting to catch up to the reality of the special place that our pets hold in our lives and in society.”
Grimm expects to see rulings over dogs in divorce cases continue to evolve, albeit more slowly than, say, animal cruelty laws did.
“Is it right that a judge says that that cat is a piece of property? I think in the next few decades, this is probably where the relationship with our companion animals is going to get really interesting,” he said. “Decisions like this will play into that.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Amy B Wang