UNIVERSITY PARK – Consider, for a moment, the American pet: 171 million dogs and cats share our homes and, as a nation, we spend $41 billion a year on our furry companions. According to BusinessWeek, that’s more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.
But there’s something even the most pampered pet doesn’t have.
“Animals don’t have rights within our legal system,” explains Patti Bednarik, a professor at Penn State Dickinson School of Law who teaches a course on Animal Law. “In the U.S., historically, they’ve always been considered property, and they still are, according to every state and federal law. This means they can be sold, transferred, and sometimes even killed, as long as it is done humanely.”
Bednarik cites monetary recovery for injury to animals as one of the more frequently covered legal topics. Because an animal is considered property, however, an owner can often only recoup the “fair market value” for one that has been maimed or killed. Traditionally, the animal’s sentimental value to its owner isn’t considered important when assessing damages in court. That means, says Bednarik, “I would receive almost no compensation if someone intentionally hurt my dog Trina, though, like many pet owners, I view her as part of the family.”
Even where damages are awarded, she adds, “Legal protection still goes back to redressing the person’s distress or loss. Not the animal’s distress.”
Long an advocate for animal welfare, Bednarik acknowledges that numerous laws do exist to protect animals. The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958 regulates treatment of livestock during slaughter; the Animal Welfare Act (1966) regulates treatment of experimental and research animals, animals in exhibitions, and animals during transportation; and the Endangered Species Act (1973) protects designated species from extinction, to name a few. “However, problems exist with the laws that we have not being enforced, and there are no real penalties, no fines, for violating certain laws,” Bednarik says.
Being protected by a law and having legal rights are very different concepts, she explains. “I try to avoid the term ‘animal rights’ as it has different meanings for different people, and sometimes people think it means you want animals to have all the same rights as people,” she says. A few rights are clearly inappropriate to offer to animals, she adds with a laugh, as she mentions the right to vote, to own property, and to bear arms.
“However, a basic legal right that I hope will one day extend to other primates is the right to physical integrity,” says Bednarik on a more serious note. “This includes freedom from experimentation without consent. I would argue that at least some species have enough similarity to human beings in terms of intelligence and emotions that it’s not justifiable to treat them as property,” she says.
Meanwhile, Bednarik strives to give students an understanding of all facets of animal law. “You can’t convince some people that animals think or feel at all,” she says. “But I think the more we learn about them, the less we’ll be able to justify their suffering.”
Dawn Stanto, Research Penn State