Animal abuse is in the news these days

Just look at the story of Sadie, the German shepherd from Ecorse who was tied to the railroad tracks and left to die. People were outraged on behalf of the dog’s owner. Even a police officer suggested, “She should sue them.” Sadly, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

Most states, including Michigan, set the legal value of an animal at whatever its price would be on the open market — racehorse or goldfish, champion bull or fireside pal, all are considered no more than personal property. If someone causes the death of an animal, all the owner can ask for in damages is its fair market value — “less depreciation,” as one especially hard-hearted claims adjuster suggested. Sentimental value doesn’t count; no matter how long you and your dog have been together or how much your cat means to you, if it’s killed, you can’t sue for more than you could sell it for.

Once upon a time, this approach made sense. Most animals worked for a living or were food producers more than human companions. But in contemporary society, things just aren’t the same. By some estimates, there are over 100 million pet dogs and cats in this country. Some dogs guard their owners or hunt and some cats still catch rats and mice, but there is no denying that it is the social and psychological benefits of pet ownership that keep pet stores prosperous and veterinarians in business.

As I heard in a vet’s waiting room: “Of course we brought her here; she’s a member of the family!” Indeed, one survey found as many as 80 percent of pet owners describe their animal companions like that. Science has begun to recognize the strength of the human-animal connection. Since the 1980s, a host of studies have established the importance of the bond between people and their pets. One of the first found that people who owned dogs were more likely to survive after a heart attack. More recently, larger-scale studies have confirmed the association between pet ownership and better health.

The effect is particularly pronounced among elderly people. Pets alleviate the loneliness of the widowed, for example, and pet visitation programs in nursing homes make residents less depressed and more receptive to treatment. One assessment found a decreased need for medication, reduced tensions between residents and less staff turnover in a nursing home where animals were abundant and part of the center’s daily routine.

Alzheimer’s patients also benefit from contact with companion animals, and a 1990 study found that Medicare participants who owned pets made fewer doctors’ visits.

When a pet dies, the bereavement process is similar to that of the loss of a well-loved human being. The evidence is abundant. At least 19 cemeteries (and two crematoriums) in Michigan are devoted exclusively to pets.

Across the country, grief counseling hot lines provide help to owners who have lost their pets. At the University of Pennsylvania, social work services have been available to bereaved pet owners since 1978. A modern bookstore features half-a-dozen volumes on coping with the death of an animal.

Why, then, does society persist in pretending that a poodle is the same as a piano? In Koester v. VCA Animal Hospital, Michigan’s Court of Appeals recently agreed with a veterinarian that she should not be liable for the psychological loss to an owner whose dog was choked by a too-tight bandage. Although the judges were sympathetic, they declined to change the rule. The dog’s owner has appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, but it has not yet decided whether to hear the case.

It is not so long in human history that women, children and others were seen, in legal terms, as merely property. We like to think that society has evolved since then. It is time we acknowledge that animals, too, are worth something more than their price at auction. Let’s not let Sadie be forgotten.

BARBARA H. GOLDMAN is an attorney with the firm of Lopatin, Miller, Freedman, Bluestone, Herskovic & Domol in Southfield and a former chairperson of the Animal Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. Write to her in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.