Do you own your dog, or are they a member of the family like any other? Or possibly both? Pets occupy a strange middle ground in law. Traditionally, they’re classified as “property,” but they’re not property in the same way as your car or the furniture in your living room is. If you want, you can either take a chainsaw to your Chevy and turn it into bite-sized cubes or let it sit in the garage until the chassis rots. In contrast, the law says that you have to take care of your dog and treat him or her humanely.
A proposed law in Quebec would change that ambiguity. Under a law known as Bill 54, proposed by Agriculture Minister Pierre Paradis, the status of animals as “property” would end. The text of the bill says, “animals are not things. They are sentient beings and have biological needs.”
That doesn’t just apply to pets such as dogs and cats; according to Paradis, “If you have a goldfish, you have to take care of it,” he said. “Don’t get a goldfish if you don’t want to take care of it.”
Bill 54 covers more than just the terms and philosophy of pet ownership: If it becomes law, acts of animal cruelty would be punished by fines up to $250,000 on a first offense and prison terms of up to 18 months on a second offense. It also outlaws cockfighting and dogfighting, requires permits from fur farms and from stables with more than 15 horses, and gives immunity protections to whistleblowers. It’s a pretty serious law.
The question of “sentience” is a tricky one, no matter how passionate you are about dignity for animals. The very definition of the term has been wrangled over by philosophers and lawmakers for centuries. Probably few people who have ever seen a dog look up at them with hunger, anticipation, or fear would deny that there is a deliberate, active consciousness there. But does the same apply to a goldfish, whose memory can be measured in seconds? Would you feel as motivated to throw someone into the clink for forgetting to feed their goldfish as someone who left their dog chained up in the snow without any food?
The issue of pet ownership is an interesting one, too: We have lots of ways to express the unique relationship that people have with their pets: They’re our “fur family,” or “fur friends,” or any of many other terms that show that they’re part of our lives, not just accesories.
My partner and I have been experiencing a very real example of that relationship lately ourselves. Only a few weeks ago, her mother died of a stroke. The whole family has been grief-stricken, and that includes my mother-in-law’s dog. She doesn’t understand the death, or what we went through for the several weeks between the stroke and her passing, but she understands that the woman who loved her most isn’t there any more. She’s been listless and depressed, responses that we haven’t gotten from my mother-in-law’s car or furniture.
Quebec isn’t the first government that’s tried to change the language of pet ownership. For over a decade, the organization In Defense of Animals has advocated replacing the term “pet owner” with “pet guardian.” Some cities in the United States, including San Francisco and Boulder, have officially adopted the terminology.
In Defense of Animals argues that moving away from ownership to guardianship is best for the rights and dignity of animals because:
The words we use are powerful. Words such as “love, peace and freedom,” have impacted societies and changed them for the better. “Guardian” is that kind of word. To be a true guardian means to reach into our hearts and allow for a deeper and more meaningful connection to form between ourselves and the animals who share our world – a connection that will most positively affect their lives and transform our own.
The Quebec law seems to take a similar philosophy, even though it still allows for animals to be raised as meat or other farming purposes.
What do you think? Do we own our pets? Do they own us? Does it matter what terms we use as long as we love and care for them?
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