Debate forum: 07/01

Forum Center: Watch out, your neighbor’s dog may be able to sue you

By Alex Culpepper

Illustration: Jed Helmers

So, dogs have been hanging with us for a long time. They apparently were drawn to our campfires, food and generally curious nature. For at least the last 15,000 years, they’ve partnered with us to get scraps of food from the latest hunt, and in exchange they provided guard and sentry duty when life was a little more wild and dangerous. Cats kind of did the same thing. They wandered in from the deserts of Egypt and took up lodging in the pharaohs’ homes where they were ideal for controlling pests like mice and rats who had a taste for stored food. It didn’t take long for people to develop a communal relationship with dogs and cats, and even though they were brought on as workers, they eventually served us with amusement and companionship and became “pets.” 

Now pets are really popular, and pet ownership has skyrocketed in the last 50 years. At last count, more than 150 million cats and dogs live with us in this country, and pet owners spend huge amounts of money on food, vet bills and even clothing for animals. They are considered family – even surrogate children, but legally they are property, not unlike a lawnmower or a toaster. And the issue of pets’ rights is bounced around the debate floors. We do have laws against cruelty, and pet owners are expected to supply a minimum of care, but for some people, pets’ rights should be rewritten and more aligned with what we might consider basic human rights. 

Supporters would start by saying pets are essentially family members who are sensitive, intelligent and have similar emotional needs as people; because of this, they need to be protected as such. They argue pets should not be commodities to be bought and sold, abandoned and euthanized at whims, but they should have legal status that regulates their existence as we do with people. They say, for example, if a dog or cat were to be hit by a car, the legal process would consider them as people, and court awards for mental suffering from loss would be comparable to what might be handed down from the death of a human family member. Similar situations would arise regarding food, shelter, abuse and health care.

Yet, with rights come responsibilities, and opponents think this is not possible when dealing with animals. Another problem they have is the rights seem more for people who own pets rather than the pets themselves, and that opens the door for all kinds of lawsuits that can hit groomers, dog walkers, veterinarians and any other person who happens to cause injury to an animal. Veterinarians are particularly concerned with the changing legal status of animals because malpractice lawsuits could affect the industry as it does with the doctors and hospitals who serve a human population.

In the case of pets’ rights, no one expects to see dogs and cats in voting booths or sitting on town councils, but they have had their days in court and have been represented by attorneys for a variety of reasons. The trend seems to be going in that direction, and pets’ rights supporters like what they see. The other side is worried about how many resources and regulations will be devoted to animals, and at the expense of people.

Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should pets have rights protecting them as individuals?

Debate Left: Animals aren’t objects

By Daphna Nachminovitch

Do animals have the right to be treated as living beings with needs, who can suffer and even die if those needs aren’t met? PETA believes the answer is an obvious and resounding “yes.” But PETA is also pragmatic, and we know “rights” are a pie-in-the-sky notion as far as many animals – including many so-called “pets” – are concerned.

Surprised? When you think about dogs and cats, you probably imagine most are treated the way your own animal companions are – as beloved members of the family. But there are millions of animals out there who, far from being treated like best friends, are given worse treatment than hated enemies would receive.

PETA sees the way the “other half” lives every single day. Our caseworkers and fieldworkers respond to hundreds of cruelty calls every week, involving everything from stray cats who have been virtually skinned alive by predators to “pot-bellied” pigs confined to garbage-strewn back porches.

Even in this day and age, many forms of cruelty to animals are just misdemeanors or not even viewed as cruelty under the law. Because animals still have so little legal protection, sometimes the best PETA can do legally is attempt to educate animal guardians and bring what comfort we can to their neglected animals.

That’s why, every weekend during the winter months, PETA staffers and volunteers are out there delivering straw bedding and doghouses to needy dogs. They find dogs who have been starved for attention (and often literally starved), sentenced to life on a chain or in a cramped pen and surrounded by mud, garbage and feces. Other dogs have nothing more than old refrigerators, truck camper shells or overturned barrels for shelter – if they have any shelter at all. They suffer from heartworm disease, frostbite, mange, broken bones, disfiguring tumors or embedded collars – collars that are so tight they’ve become embedded in the flesh around their neck, causing it to rot.

But our staffers and volunteers still encounter situations that shock them. That’s what happened when two volunteers were delivering straw in Portsmouth, Va., on a cold February day.

Volunteers stumbled upon a dirty plastic dog carrier that was partially concealed by a doghouse. Inside the carrier, a dog named Blue was wagging his tail and jumping up and down in excitement. A pit-bull mix with vivid periwinkle eyes, Blue was visibly malnourished, and his feet were stained yellow from being forced to stand in his own urine.

With horror, the volunteers realized Blue wasn’t alone. In the carrier with him was the body of a second dog, an emaciated brindle female pit bull named Dynasty.

After the volunteers called the police, Dynasty’s remains, along with Blue, were relinquished to PETA. An examination by a veterinarian revealed Dynasty had starved to death and she had been suffering from an untreated fractured femur. The only contents of her stomach were a few pieces of straw she had eaten in a desperate attempt to stay alive.

The dogs’ owner was found guilty of cruelty to animals. The judge said he wished he could impose a sentence on the man similar to the one the man had imposed on Dynasty – but, he said, that would amount to “cruel and unusual punishment.” Instead, the man was sentenced to 12 months in jail, with six months suspended, and banned from having animals again.

Cruel and unusual punishment. That’s an apt description of what many “backyard dogs” endure, despite the fact they have committed no crime.

In an effort to protect both dogs and citizens (because chained dogs are three times more likely to bite), several cities in Ohio, including Chagrin Falls, Cleveland, Middletown and North Royalton, have enacted laws restricting chaining. Dayton has no such law on the books.

As bad as it is for dogs, other animals have even less legal protection. It’s legal in many communities to let cats roam outside by themselves, where they’re exposed to myriad dangers, including getting hit by cars and attacked by other animals and cruel people. It’s legal to buy guinea pigs or rabbits, stick them in a hutch and never let them outside to exercise or play or do anything else that would make their lives fulfilling and meaningful.

In many cases, the abuse of these animals starts before they even get home. We’ve uncovered horrors at pet store suppliers, such as the Atlanta-based Sun Pet Ltd. (which supplies numerous Petco and PetSmart locations), where our investigator found animals were cruelly killed, abusively handled and forced to live in severely crowded, filthy conditions. 

At the Texas breeding mill Rainbow World Exotics, which supplied birds, rabbits, guinea pigs and other small animals to national pet-store chains, we found employees were throwing live animals in the trash and animals were denied vital veterinary care, including ferrets with rectal prolapses and a guinea pig with a broken hip. One worker castrated poorly anesthetized rabbits with a dull razor and wiped their open incisions with Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.

Should animals have rights? Absolutely. But far too many animals are still treated like disposable objects, not as living, feeling beings. When we fail to provide animals with proper care, there are consequences – sometimes fatal ones. There should be repercussions, too, just as there are when someone abuses or neglects a child or a disabled person. Animal companions aren’t accessories. They aren’t lawn ornaments. They are individuals who deserve and need our protection.

Daphna Nachminovitch is the senior vice president of PETA’s Cruelty Investigations Department. Reach guest columnist Daphna Nachminovitch at

Debate Right: Our furry friends need more legal protection

By Rob Scott

I remember the day clearly when I was 17 years old and my boyhood dog, Buddy, had to be put down. He was 15. I was heartbroken and, to this day, I refuse to speak about it. I had the identical feelings about family members passing as I did my dog.

Guaranteed, I’m not alone in the emotions felt for pets as being similar to the emotions of a family member or close friend. When something unfortunate happens to our pets from someone’s negligence or abuse, we feel the same emotional and physical hardships we would for a human being.

With their status as personal property under Ohio law, pets are unable to bring a civil suit for themselves if they are harmed. To bring a case in court, a party must have legal “standing.” The requirement of standing is satisfied if an individual has a right to protection from the wrong done to them, and can show they were wronged by the person they sue. The issue is, animals cannot speak for themselves in court.

Another consequence of animals’ status as personal property is that if one is hurt or killed by someone other than his owner, the damages that can be recovered – if any – are minimal. Even if devastated, an owner can usually only be compensated for the pet’s market value. In general, courts do not recognize or award punitive damages for “emotional distress” or “loss of companionship” in these cases.

A local and commonly cited case is Oberschlake v. Veterinary Associates Animal Hospital decided in 2003 out of Greene County. Former Dayton Mayor and attorney Paul R. Leonard argued the case before the Ohio Second District Court of Appeals.

The case was about a dog that tried to sue for emotional distress and failed. According to the complaint filed by her owners, Poopi was taken to Veterinary Associates Animal Hospital in March 2001 to have her teeth cleaned. Unfortunately, while Poopi was under anesthesia, the veterinarian also tried to spay her, even though she had previously been spayed as a puppy. Subsequently, the owners filed an action on Poopi’s behalf, alleging veterinary malpractice caused Poopi physical pain and suffering, as well as emotional distress.

As the court observed, “Whether or not one agrees with the view pets are more than personal property, it is clear Ohio does not recognize noneconomic damages for injury to companion animals.”

While the court noted one Ohio case has apparently left open the door for the recovery of distress damages, “the mental anguish in such situations must be ‘so serious and of a nature that no reasonable man could be expected to endure it.’ Even conceding the bond between many humans and their pets, the burden is one that would be very difficult to meet.”

The court did acknowledge there was a special bond between humans and their pets, however the law needed to be changed in order to provide pets with expanded legal rights.

There are three ways for animals to obtain legal rights in Ohio, and other applicable states. First, any broad protections or rights, such as granting standing to animals, will probably have to come through legislation. Passing legislation is an arduous process and entails a fair amount of compromise and negotiation. Big businesses that depend on large-scale animal use, such as the food, fur and research industries, lobby to ensure as little regulation as possible. Since these industries are multimillion- or even billion-dollar industries with significant political leverage, legislation granting rights to animals requires a lot of public support. One successful piece of legislation, signed into law in November 2000 in Congress, bans the sale of cat and dog fur products in the United States.

Secondly, building precedent favorable to our fellow creatures can occur step-by-step through individual cases, the decisions of which create common law. Individual judges are unlikely to make any sweeping changes with a single case. However, once a few cases have given greater protection to animals, it might be easier to bring legislation that codifies those decisions into statutory law.

A third way to create legal change is to introduce a ballot initiative or referendum. This method approaches the voting public directly and bypasses the Ohio legislature, which may be subject to pressures from various industries. In 1998, for example, California voters enacted, through an initiative, a ban on the transportation of animals associated with and the sale of horse meat for human consumption.

Another example is many animal advocacy groups are also working to change the term “owner” of pets to “guardian.” In July 2000, the Boulder City Council in Colorado followed the lead of San Francisco by changing the city’s municipal code to refer to people as “guardians” of their companion animals instead of as their “owners.” While this does not change the legal status of animals, it is a step in changing society’s views.

The law, in most instances, is slower than the times. In the case of legal rights for pets, the law will eventually catch up and recognize in some manner the special relationship between humans and their beloved pets.

Rob Scott is a general practice attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is a Kettering City Councilman and founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at or

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