First of all, howdy, and welcome to my new website. Thanks to Martyn Green for his help and guidance setting things up. You’ll be hard pressed to find a better guy to work with.
As you follow me here and on Twitter, you’ll notice that I’ll be writing a lot about cats and dogs. No, I won’t be posting cute pictures of puppies and kittens (though you will see pictures of my own cats from time to time, because, well, they’re adorable). And no, I won’t be offering up any grooming tips or training advice (though I will say that a water pistol is your best friend if your cat has figured out how to turn on your alarm clock at 5 in the morning).
Instead, I’ll be writing about how cats and dogs are becoming people.
Sure, many of us treat our pets like family. In the U.S., we spend billions on toys, food, and veterinarians. We celebrate our pets’ birthdays. We take them shopping. We pamper them with kitty condos and doggy day care.
But that’s not what I’m interested in. Or, at least, that’s just a small part of what I’m interested in.
What I really care about is how new scientific discoveries and legal movements are blurring the line between pet and person. Cats and dogs are beginning to acquire many of the rights once reserved solely for human beings. And soon the animals we have lived with for thousands of years will no longer be animals. They will be people.
Don’t believe me? Consider the following:
For more than a century, the law has considered cats and dogs mere property. No different than a couch or a car. But judges have stopped treating them that way. Over the past decade, they’ve awarded malpractice claims against veterinarians in the tens of thousands of dollars, despite the negligible market value of a pet as property. They’ve let owners sue for wrongful death and emotional distress–legal claims normally reserved for the loss of a spouse or child. They’ve even placed abused pets in protective custody, effectively emancipating them from their owners.
At the same time, Rhode Island and more than 20 cities have enacted ordinances changing pet “owners” to “guardians.” New York has just created the nation’s first animal abuser registry, akin to that for sex offenders. And after Hurricane Katrina, Congress passed an act requiring emergency responders to rescue pets as well as people. In addition, thanks to the Uniform Trust Act of 2000, owners can leave money to their pets after they die. This seemingly simple sanction gives pets incomes for the first time, shattering their definition as property.
Scientific discoveries, meanwhile, have continued to erode the barriers that once separated pets and people. Researchers have begun studying dogs instead of chimpanzees and dolphins, for example, to learn how social intelligence evolved. They’ve also found that dogs seem to have a rudimentary theory of mind, an ability to sense what others are thinking that even toddlers may not possess. And they’ve shown that dogs may be capable of abstract thought, basic arithmetic, and even spirituality. (Cats may have similar abilities, but for reasons clear to any cat owner, they’re a lot harder to test).
The list goes on.
So where does all of this leave cats and dogs? Pretty far from the wild animals we tamed just a few millennia ago. They’re not people yet, but as more court cases set precedents, more laws redefine personhood, and more scientific discoveries break down barriers, pets will begin to acquire rights and responsibilities once reserved solely for humans.
And that’s when things start to get interesting. (More about this in a future post).
We’re entering a brave new world with our pets. I hope you’ll stick around as I navigate the waters.