Dissension abounds concerning pet worth


Cleveland- Legislation and lawsuits surfacing in the United States reveal a dithering balance between the profession's defense of veterinary medicine and the public's desire to increase pet value via legal status, classification and economic worth.

Cleveland- Legislation and lawsuits surfacing in the United States reveal a dithering balance between the profession's defense of veterinary medicine and the public's desire to increase pet value via legal status, classification and economic worth.

To aid the profession's bouts with lawmakers and animal activists, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), at presstime, considers creating a task force charged with positioning itself on owner/guardianship language as well as non-economic value concerning pets. At the same time, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and Maryland state associations join the battle against such legislative initiatives while California officials monitor a court ruling they claim indirectly allows emotional restitution for animals (see related story, page 56).

These cases and others prove the changing status of animals should rank as the profession's top concern - one that veterinarians must agree to promote as well as prevent, says Dr. Jim Wilson, attorney and University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor.

"There are all these things churning in a pot: economic value, increased liability, guardianship - it boils down to the public's view that pets are not disposable," he says. "We are the original animal welfarists, but what we're not doing is banning together on these issues. Without proper guidance, I don't know how well veterinarians will survive this."

Dueling factions

While most veterinarians agree changing legal terminology from "owner" to "guardian" carries unseen, negative consequences, two camps have emerged in response to raising pet worth. Courts traditionally view pets as property and deny claims seeking more than an animal's fair market value. To temper the movement challenging this concept, one group of veterinarians, largely stemming from California, labors to "proactively" change the law. In January, the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) failed to launch a bill that, if passed, would have allowed non-economic rewards up to $25,000. The idea was to implement guidelines rather than wait for legal precedence to set them, says CVMA member Bill Grant, DVM.

"The majority of states are looking at this right now, but no one is doing anything about it," Grant says. "I don't think that when something goes wrong, the animal is worth no more than its replacement value; that's not right, and the public sees that. A lot of people think California is the land of fruits and nuts, but this movement isn't just happening here."

Conservative majority

It's also surfacing in the New Jersey Legislature, where AB 2411 threatens to award up to $20,000 for loss of companionship, allowing owners a civil remedy when their pets are subjected to cruelty. Emotional distress damages also are covered by the bill's text.

Unlike California, New Jersey veterinary leaders are taking on the bill using a more conservative approach.

"I do think this is a watershed moment for veterinary medicine," says Rick Alampi, New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA) executive director. "We believe animals are property and that it's a correct, appropriate classification. The challenge is for organized veterinary medicine to better communicate the pitfalls of going any other route and allowing these types of cases. Doing so will lead to greater defensive medicine and raising the cost of veterinary care."

Small victories

While NJVMA fights AB 2411, Maryland Veterinary Medical Association lobbyist Bill Erskine claims success in his work to help quash legislative language allowing $5,000 in punitive damages for negligent injury to or death of a pet. The bill, rising from a case where a woman's three kittens were shot and then drowned by her landlord, specified no cap in cases of intentional harm or death.

"This is a victory for veterinarians," says Erskine, who testified against the bill. "My heart almost stopped when they tried to change the definition of pet from domesticated animal to just dogs and cats. These are emotional issues, and this is the type of struggle we deal with. I had to convince the bill's sponsor that changing the law would, in the long run, cause animal welfare to suffer."

Far from over

That's how Tom Gosdeck, New York Veterinary Medical Society lobbyist, appealed to state lawmakers upon introduction of SB 7291 and its companion, AB 6340. If passed, language in the bills would allow anyone aggrieved to petition the court for guardianship of an animal and sue for punitive damages on the animal's behalf, seeking loss of companionship and emotional distress compensation.

Similarly, Massachusetts state lawmakers face a nearly identical language in HB 4414. Both states' initiatives are live but currently buried in committees. If the initiative fails, Gosdeck expects it to resurface next year.

"We've won this battle, but the war is far from over," Gosdeck says. "Guardianship language is a step toward treating animals more as humans than as property. These aren't vaccine or licensing bills, these are gut-level economic survival issues for practitioners. I think at some point soon we'll have to fight this fight again."

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