It’s not just on campus research labs that some are feeling the heat brought by increasingly sophisticated efforts to enshrine animal rights.
Veterinarians are right on the front lines of animal rights litigation, veterinary ethicist Jerrold Tannenbaum told attendees at a 2010 Society for Neuroscience panel titled “Conferring Legal Rights to Animals: Research in the Crosshairs.” That’s because of a trend that started in the 1990s to push for what lawyers would call “non-economic” damages like “emotional distress” or loss of companionship.
Pepperdine University law professor Richard Cupp says that with this trend, emotional distress damages might be awarded in some jurisdictions "if say, I accidentally ran over someone's dog." He also cites a 2000 Tennessee law that created liability of up to $4,000 to $5,000 as a prominent example of expanding responsibility, although it has some exemptions. It specifically excludes veterinarians from liability, for example.
One much-watched court case came in 2005 when a California jury awarded Marc Bluestone $9,000 for veterinary bills incurred when his shelter rescue dog, Shane, died after he was given drugs to stop seizures that also destroyed his liver. The kicker: the jury also awarded $30,000 for the special and unique value of Shane’s and Bluestone’s relationship. Los Angeles lawyer Theresa Macellaro successfully analogized Shane to a treasured heirloom of family jewelry. Shane was property — but what Cupp calls special and unique property.
For now, however, the only mental anguish, pain, suffering, or loss of companionship that come into play are the owner’s, not the pet’s.
Wrongful death statutes are confined to people, but if veterinarians were routinely to be held responsible for causing “emotional distress” to animals, it would open the door to animals having standing comparable to human beings. Cupp says veterinary malpractice has the spotlight because it has a better chance of public acceptance than “personhood.” And, he says, “It might be a stepping stone toward getting people to start to think differently about animals.”
More veterinary malpractice suits likely mean higher insurance premiums and higher fees if veterinarians, like physicians before them, practice defensively to avoid lawsuits.
In 2008, 11,000 of the approximately 80,000 U.S. veterinarians were supporters of The Humane Society. However, the Humane Society itself has long being frustrated with the American Veterinary Medical Association, which it sees as siding more with animal-use industries than animals.
In January 2008, HSUS president and CEO Wayne Pacelle announced a joint venture with the 3,500-veterinarian-strong Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights, an organization working to reduce the use of harmful and fatal use of animals in veterinary training. Together, they created the new advocacy group, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, focused on a humane veterinary profession.
On another front, In Defense of Animals started a compassionate language “guardianship campaign” back in 1999. The “guardian movement” isn’t growing like wildfire, but Rhode Island and cities like San Francisco (list here) have either replaced the word “owner” with “guardian” or begun using the two terms interchangeably. San Francisco has now famously discussed completely banning sales of animals as pets, although not banning the concept of pet.
The fear in the biomedical research community is that such moves are a stalking horse for still more animal rights legislation.
Cupp cautions that, “There’s a very specific body of law associated with the legal concept of guardianship.” If someone told a vet that they’d have to put their dog to sleep if treatment cost more than $1,000, he says, “Where does the vet go if it’s not property; if it’s not the decision of the guardian or owner?”