From Divorce to Wills -- What Every Pet Owner Needs to Know About Animal Law

By Dr. Christopher J. Allen, JD

Animal Photography As a child, I used to hear my parents talk about "the dogcatcher" and how if people let their pets roam loose, those pets would be captured and held by this mystery person. Who knew if these pets would ever be heard from again?

As a veterinarian, I have worked with many "dogcatchers" (now referred to as animal control officers) since I have owned practices that worked under contract with municipalities to assist them in that role. Of course, nowadays what dogcatchers do is round up lost and abandoned animals, see to it that injured ones receive medical treatment and simultaneously enforce the rabies vaccination laws that protect humans.

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In this way, animals have long been subject to legislation, law enforcement and judicial decisions. In fact, during the last decade, the landscape of animal law has expanded dramatically as the importance of domestic animals has increased.

Animal Law Transcends Legal Specialties

The legal profession, much like the medical profession, has a number of areas of practice specialization, including areas such as divorce, estate planning, personal injury, corporate law and so on. Incredible as it may seem, critters have managed to work their way into virtually every legal area. As a society, we have moved well past the day when the only legal problem pets were likely to cause was when the dogcatcher issued an owner a ticket for failing to have a dog licensed. Today, however, animal law has impacted many fields of legal specialization. Let's take a look at a few.

1. Wills and Estates Law

Readers may remember that the infamous Leona Helmsley (widow of New York real estate magnate Harry Helmsley) left a fortune to her pet dog when she passed away a few years ago. In a bitterly contested will, her human relatives were shocked to find that the bequest was legally enforceable and that the courts of New York would indeed hold a very large (though reduced) portion of Mrs. Helmsley's estate in trust for her beloved pet.

2. Divorce Law

Dogs and cats are now the specific subjects of prenuptial contracts throughout the U.S. They also are frequently the most contested property to be negotiated during separation and divorce agreements. As with human children, dogs, cats, parrots, monkeys and many other pets are the object of fiery disagreement between couples headed for a breakup. Of course, neither kids nor pets can be split into pieces and distributed between the disagreeing parties to a divorce. Therefore, judges are being presented with, and many are approving, shared animal custody or visitation rights for husbands and wives, domestic partners and even roommates when they are faced with pet custody disputes.

3. Corporate Law

It can be big local news when a farmer is caught neglecting or abusing his farm animals. The local humane organizations and the animal control officer might show up and take the cattle, horses or sheep to a rehabilitator or foster home, but there usually isn't a great deal of money involved. The situation is different, however, when some Fortune 500 company is accused of the same - that's national news.

At one time, virtually no one had the resources to challenge a big company such as a billion-dollar, publicly held fast-food chain if one of these companies was caught treating food animals in an inhumane way. But now, very well-funded humane organizations and animal rights groups are pursuing (and winning) animal cruelty cases against these very large defendants.

And now that big-money cases and large potential jury awards have begun to revolve around animals, you can be sure that corporate attorneys are generally paying much closer attention to the precise meaning of animal-protection legislation. They want to know every nuance of these laws' applicability to the millions of food animals under the control of their corporate clients.

4. Bailment Law

This is a legal concept that basically means that when the property of another person is placed in your hands, you have a duty to care for it and return it to its owner undamaged. For example, a "bailment" is created when a valet parks your car or when you check your luggage at the airline counter.

So, in the world of animals, what happens when Mr. Smith drops Fluffy off to be groomed one morning at the local pet groomer and Mrs. Smith picks Fluffy up in the afternoon? There was never a problem when this happened for Fluffy's first dozen grooming appointments.

This time, though, the pet groomer had no idea that the Smiths have become legally separated. Imagine the horror when Mr. Smith comes in to collect Fluffy and his pooch is no longer there! The grooming business owner might not care that the Smiths are tied up in a terrible legal battle. What she should be concerned about is if she doesn't carry bailment insurance and now has to defend herself and her business in a lawsuit lodged by Mr. Smith for his "suffering and anguish" attributable to her having relinquished his property - Fluffy - to someone not authorized to possess the dog.

Mr. Smith's lawyer will likely add in his legal complaint that Fluffy was an ultra-valuable dog with perfect lineage. Therefore, he could win big bucks for his client even if he loses on the pain and suffering angle.

5. Personal Injury Law

Then, of course, there is always the obvious: Small claims and full-blown jury trials are increasingly being brought against every imaginable animal-related defendant. Apart from the standard "your dog bit me" situation, pet motels are being sued for letting ticks infect boarders with Lyme disease. Veterinarians must carry malpractice insurance to protect themselves against errors and omissions. Customers are suing pet trainers when the dog they thought had been educated not to bite anymore takes a hunk out of somebody's leg.

And, of course, don't forget the poor dogcatchers. They are increasingly afraid of being sued (alongside their employing municipality) for animal abuse, trespassing, failure to respond to dangerous animal reports in a timely manner or pretty much anything. So remember, Ms. Animal Control Officer - check to make sure your dog paddy wagon isn't leaking antifreeze before you roll on that next missing doggie report.

We've just touched on a few of the basic areas where animals impact the law and vice versa, but there are many others. The message here is that, in a legal sense, owning, caring for or even just interacting with animals has become increasingly complicated in recent years. It pays to be aware of the laws and what your risks and rights are depending on your role.

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