08 January 2017

Pet Ownership, Guardianship, and the Unintended Consequences for Abused Women

Are pets property?

According to a recent ruling by a Saskatchewan judge, they are. This is in line with other rulings regarding how pets should be treated during the dissolution of a marriage or common-law relationship.

Pets are property, and the courts do not get involved in who gets “custody” of the toaster.

It seems straightforward, and many people agree with the judge’s line of thought.

Following up on his ruling, Justice Danyliuk stated that, “To consume scarce judicial resources with this matter is wasteful. In my view such applications should be discouraged.”

But the issue of whether pets should be treated as sentient beings who have guardians, or property that is owned, is fraught.

Many organizations that investigate incidents of animal cruelty support laws recognizing that animals feel pain (sentient beings) and subsequently have penalties reflect this.

Pets have been gaining legal rights over the last several years, and although large organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Kennel Club oppose any move towards granting pets legal personhood, the issue continues to come up in North American courts.

Vets worry that the move to personhood could impact their ability to perform veterinary medicine.

As the AVMA points out, could it become illegal to spay or neuter pets because of “reproductive rights”? Could vets or pet guardians be sued for providing what someone else might consider inadequate care?

There are fears that a shift to guardianship from ownership would leave people at risk of egregious state intervention, and would violate their human rights and interfere with their relationships with their pets.

And there is the concern expressed by Justice Danyliuk in the recent Saskatoon case, that treating pets as sentient beings more akin to children than to toasters, would clog up a court process that already faces frequent delays.

Treating pets like children and asking the courts to determine their care after divorce would add yet another strand to the Gordian knot of relationship dissolution.

But there are two critical aspects to the guardianship vs. ownership debate that must be addressed, even if it does add time and complication to divorce proceedings.

The first is whether non-human beings can be persons at all.

India has taken steps towards granting dolphins personhood (though these are first steps only), and the Nonhuman Rights Project in the United States is also pursuing personhood status for some animals.

Corporations, of course, have been granted legal personhood throughout the United States.

Although it has yet to be determined whether nonhuman animals will be granted personhood rights, the door is creaking open.

The other aspect relevant to treating pets as sentient beings rather than owned property, regards the well-established link between domestic abuse and the abuse of pets.

Pet custody has a significant impact on women’s ability to leave abusive situations.

Abused women are 11 times more likely to witness their pets being abused, according to a large 2007 study.

As Kerri Froc at the Canadian Bar Association’s National Magazine reports, threats of violence against pets “one tool in abusers’ arsenal of emotional abuse and control.”

The issue of personhood, and of whether the relationship with pets is one of owner or guardian, intersects with other legal issues.

While it is clear that pets are not children (no matter how much they are loved and doted on), it is also not clear if treating them as property is the best way to continue.

About Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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