The Value of Pets
posted by Frank Pasquale
Poison in pet food has led to new calls for rethinking law’s valuation of companion animals hurt or killed by torts:
Lawyers, animal-rights activists and pet owners are arguing that most state laws dealing with pets are outmoded and fail to consider that pets play the role of companions in today’s society. They say pet owners whose animal is injured or killed should receive compensation not only for vet bills and a replacement animal — but for emotional distress as well. While legal experts say big payouts for emotional damages are unlikely in the pet-food cases, the lawsuits and large number of pets affected could accelerate a growing trend to give pets more recognition under the law.
Quotes from devastated pet owners suggest their extraordinary attachment. For example, one claimed, of a cat, “She’s not a pet, she’s family. . . . She’s everything to me.” Another discussed the “significant emotional investment my wife and I have in our animals.”
I’ve worried a bit elsewhere about the growing importance of pets in today’s society. I think we may be trending toward an undue anthropomorphism, a tendency to “attribut[e] human characteristics, behavior or emotions to our non-human friends”–and value them accordingly.
I recognize that the capacity to be a good steward for animals and the environment generally is a great virtue. Still, I think this may be a good place to apply recent literature on resilient humans’ capacity for “bouncing back” after “utility shocks.” A person who suffers from the loss of a pet in the same way that others suffer from the loss of a child is certainly due great sympathy. But calibrating legal treatment of such losses to the subjective response of individuals confers society’s imprimatur upon a deep confusion about the relative value of human and nonhuman animals. . . . and may well lead us down a slippery slope toward a recognition of machine rights.
Photo Credit: AGrimley/Flickr.