According to the law, pets are personal property. For instance, Virginia Code Section 3.2-6585 says that “all dogs and cats” are “deemed personal property.” Many people find this unacceptable, and want companion animals to have a much more meaningful legal status. As unsatisfactory as the law may seem, defining pets as personal property isn’t all bad. And the law has added many features for pets that elevate them above mere personal property.
There are many examples of cases that show that pets, although “personal property,” have a legal status all their own. Two vivid examples of very different approaches to how the law treats pets can be found in Maryland and Florida.
In Calvert County, Maryland, Judge Graydon S. McKee III was confronted with two spouses in a divorce arguing over who should be able to keep Lucky, a beloved Lhasa apso – ShihTzu mix. Judge McKee held a hearing, where the husband and wife each argued who looked after Lucky, and who had more time to spend with her. The hearing revolved around Lucky’s and the owners’ best interests – much like a custody dispute and much unlike property division. In the end, Judge McKee ordered Lucky to spend six months at a time with each spouse. To read more about this, take a look at this Baltimore Sun article, Split Custody of Dog Recognizes Changing Role of Family Pets.
In Pinellas County, Florida, Judge Henry J. Andringa was faced with a “custody” battle between Florida and Louisiana residents. The Florida residents had adopted a Saint Bernard and a German Shepherd mix from the Pinellas Humane Society, which rescued the dogs after Hurricane Katrina. After the original owners in Louisiana got back on their feet, they sued to regain ownership of the dogs. Judge Andringa decided that he will rule based on straight property law and ownership, and not by conducting an analysis of who will be better caretakers for the dogs. For more on this story, read this North Country Gazette article, Judge Rules Dog Personal Property in Katrina Custody Case. These two Katrina dogs are not the only ones involved in a “custody” battle. A recent thought provoking documentary, “Mine,” discusses the many former owners trying to be reunited with their pets after Hurricane Katrina.
This raises important points for rescues, shelters and pet owners. First, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, there has been a well needed focus on pets in emergency preparedness plans. Make sure that you have thought this through and are ready to care for your pet in the event of an emergency. As an example, take a look at the City of Alexandria’s Pet Emergency Preparedness Plan. Second, if you are a rescue or shelter taking in animals, be sure to get paperwork making it very clear that owners surrendering dogs are relinquishing any rights to the animals, including property rights. While it may feel unnecessary in the wake of an emergency as horrific as Hurricane Katrina, the absence of such paperwork can create emotional roller coasters like the Pinellas County Florida case after the fact.
So if the law considers pets to be personal property, how much is Fido really worth? For answers to that question, stay posted for Parts 2 and 3 of Pets, Personal Property and Price.