Family Or Property -- The Legal Value Of Our Animal Companions

My dog, Eve, was recently bitten by a rattlesnake while we were hiking. We were a long way from a veterinarian and I wondered whether I would lose her. I didn't hesitate to tell the emergency vet that they should spare no expense trying to save her, because Eve is an integral part of my family. If you share your home with a companion animal you likely feel the same way. According to a 2015 Harris poll, 95 percent of households with companion animals consider them part of their family. But because animals are considered "property" under the law, there's no guarantee that value will be accounted for in the situation of a wrongful death, for example. When a court is asked to calculate the value of a beloved companion animal, the determination is typically based purely on the animal's market value, that is, what it would cost to "replace" them.

But that may be starting to change. Animal law is a relatively new legal field, pioneered by 37-year-old nonprofit the Animal Legal Defense Fund. Like any movement for social change, progress--especially legal progress--takes time. Sweeping legal victories happen, but more often than not, the change is incremental. But the overall trend in animal valuation offers hope -- we're seeing more courts recognize that beloved non-human animal family members have intrinsic value, which must be reflected in damages their families are entitled to by law.

Two recent legal decisions we've been following are representative of this step forward. In March 2016 an Oregon rancher was awarded nearly $250,000, including $100,000 for emotional damages, after three of his Great Pyrenees livestock guardian dogs were shot and killed by two brothers out hunting. He will also be compensated for the value of the dogs as property. This decision is an important step in the recognition that animals have inherent value. While $100,000 can never bring back the dogs, the award recognizes that animals have value far beyond mere property under the law.

Another recent case reminds us that while we are moving forward, there's no guarantee that a companion animal's intrinsic value will be given the weight it deserves in the courtroom. In May 2012, the Monyak family of Georgia left their dogs Lola and Callie at a boarding facility while on vacation. The staff mistakenly gave Callie's daily dose of Rimadyl--an anti-inflammatory drug for arthritis--to Lola during their twelve-day stay. Not only did Callie not get the medicine she needed, Lola, a much smaller dog, was subjected to repeated overdoses, resulting in acute kidney failure. The Monyaks spent tens of thousands of dollars on extensive veterinary treatment to save Lola, but she eventually died from her injuries in March 2013. For years the family has been fighting a legal battle for compensation for the vet bills and for Lola's intrinsic value.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund filed an amicus, or "friend of the court," brief in support of the Monyaks, urging the Georgia Supreme court to affirm a previous Court of Appeals decision permitting damages that exceed Lola's market value, and to include Lola's intrinsic value. Lola was a dachshund mix, making her "market value" essentially $0. The Court made its decision earlier this month, but the results were mixed. It allowed recovery of vet bills in excess of market value, which is a positive step, but it held that compensating for Lola herself would be based on fair market value rather than her "actual value to the owner" or "intrinsic value."

The different outcomes in these two cases show that our laws are catching up to where we are as a society, but until animals are no longer classified as mere property, there's no guarantee that mourning families like the Monyaks will be able to achieve justice for their beloved family members.

The subtle progress we're seeing matters. These are the seeds of change on a much larger scale, and for those of us watching closely, we know that progress for companion animals is just the beginning. When it comes to non-human animals, it's easiest for us to see the value in our companion animals, and so their treatment under the law functions as a bellwether for treatment of all animals, like those subject to brutal factory farming practices.