December 01, 2004

 

 State legislators oppose animal guardianship, noneconomic damages laws - December 1, 2004

Posted on November 15, 2004
 

The Council of State Governments recently adopted a policy opposing animal guardianship, as well as tort law reforms entitling owners to compensation for emotional distress and loss of companionship when an animal is hurt or killed.

Copies of the policy will be distributed to every federal and state agriculture committee member and all state agriculture commissioners when the new congressional session convenes next year. The expectation is that legislators will use the policy to pass laws against both legal trends.

The CSG, a national organization that advises the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of state government on matters of public policy, approved the statement Sept. 29 as a means of preparing states for what is seen as the latest front in the animal rights campaign.

The pet guardian movement started in Boulder, Colo., in July 2000. Now, Rhode Island; Marin County, California; and at least 12 other cities nationwide also refer to pet owners as guardians, according to In Defense of Animals, the Mill Valley, Calif., animal rights group that initiated the guardian campaign.

On the one hand, by emphasizing the owner's responsibility to the pet rather than the animal's property status, IDA hopes to promote responsible pet ownership. Yet the group says the campaign's primary objective is to shift the legal status of animals from property to personhood.

The CSG's new policy declares that the animal rights movement threatens the legal balance between enforcement of anticruelty laws that deter animal abuse and encourage humane treatment and granting animals the same or similar rights afforded to people.

"(G)uardianship statutes would undermine the protective care that owners can provide for their animals and the freedom of choice owners now are free to exercise, and could permit third parties to petition courts for custody of a pet, livestock, or animal for which they do not approve of the husbandry practices," the policy states.

As animal scientist Carolyn Orr, PhD, explained, the hundred or so state legislators, agriculture commissioners, and other task force members are worried about the legal implications of pet guardianship. Dr. Orr is the chief agriculture and rural policy analyst for the task force that drafted the policy.

"If guardianship is conferred, that means that, in the end, the state is responsible for the animal, and that was a concern," Dr. Orr said.

The policy was widely circulated among members of the animal agriculture, pharmaceutical, and biomedical research industries prior to being submitted to the CSG, Dr. Orr said. Additionally, the AVMA, at the council's request, provided a copy of its Owner vs. Guardian Position Statement.

Adopted in May 2003, the AVMA policy states that any change in terminology describing the relationship between pets and owners does not strengthen that relationship and could, in fact, diminish it.

Of equal concern to CSG members are efforts to permit recovery of losses for emotional distress and loss of companionship when a pet is hurt or dies as a result of negligence. Veterinarians, livestock producers, animal enterprises, and others who provide goods and services to animals are especially vulnerable to an expanded tort law.

For instance, earlier this year an Orange County, California, jury awarded a man $39,000 in a malpractice suit against two veterinarians whose actions resulted in the death of his dog. Jurors determined that the adopted mixed-breed dog had a special value of $30,000 (see JAVMA, April 15, 2004, page 1229).

"(T)he cumulative impact of these initiatives would be counterproductive because it would limit—or even eliminate—the animal owner's ability to freely choose appropriate treatment for their animals, set off a chain of events that would inevitably increase the cost of livestock production and the cost of animal's well-being, and as a result, would ultimately erode access to affordable and high-quality animal health care," the policy states.

Typically, family members are not entitled to recovery of noneconomic damages when a close relative is killed, the policy notes.

Indiana State Sen. Robert N. Jackman, a veterinarian with a mixed practice in Milroy, said the pet guardian and noneconomic damages initiatives pose serious economic hurdles to livestock producers. A member of the Agriculture and Rural Policy Task Force, Dr. Jackman called the CSG policy "a good resolution that will help protect the livestock industry."

To read the CSG policy in its entirety, visit www.csg.org and search for "animal guardianship."