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Animal Law

Companion Animals, Abandonment, and Legal Analysis

The Question: ‘What could I write?’
As a law lecturer who teaches animal law, it is extremely common for me to get questions from students about potential paper topics.  Equally often, students make outright statements, along the lines of ‘I have no idea what to write for a final paper!’  Students often think that everything worth writing has been written.

This usually makes me laugh!

The Problem: How much is unwritten
As I see it, the problem is not what has been written – but what hasn’t.  The shortage of quality legal research in just about every area of inquiry – especially in New Zealand – is alarming.   It is a large contributor to the maintenance of the status quo.   Until we are able to persuasively critique the law and understand where it falls short (aside from just making declaratory assertions about its general uselessness), the movement for better laws will continue to fall flat.

The Example: Abandoned animals as property
One area of law that has gone without analysis is the property status of companion animals in the context of abandonment.  Sure, the property status of animals generally has been the subject of numerous journal articles and even a few books.  But I’m also interested in seeing how property status ‘infects’ (as I put it in my class) all sorts of animal treatments.   One situation that gives me particular concern is the right of all property holders to relinquish their animals, a subject I study in Lecture Three of my animal law class.

Thankfully, my musings in this area – never put down on paper – have now been examined in greater detail by my good friend Steven White, from Griffith Law School in Brisbane.   In a provocative article entitled ‘Companion Animals: Members of the Family or Legally Discarded Objects’, published in Volume 32 of the University of New South Wales Law Journal, he examines the link between an animal’s property status and the frightening relinquishment numbers of dogs and cats in Australia.   Great article that is worth a read.  Good to see Steven getting his work published in mainstream Australia publications as well.

I just sent Steven a note with some feedback on the article and mentioned that, consistent with the first paragraph of this blog, his article merely starts – rather than finishes – the conversation on this issue.   He raises a number of interesting queries that are not fully analysed, probably due to space considerations.  One is that the property status of animals is likely to be affected directly by a series of custody cases in the US where families are fighting over ‘who gets the dog’ in a particular divorce.   I’ve never thought much of these cases, and treated them primarily as a curiousity, but White points out that they force us to question the property status of animals in an accessible, acceptable way, and that cases of this type, may cause ‘the idea of a companion animal as disposable property [to] be legally destablised’.

A very useful contribution to animal law in Australasia, and well worth a read.

Note as an aside
To follow up on my point above regarding the need to show where the law falls short, it is interesting to highlight that a great deal of energy is being spent by numerous well-intentioned parties in NZ to reform two areas of the Animal Welfare Act 1999:

  1. To push up maximum punishments for offenders; and
  2. To narrow the ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause in s 73 that allows the Minister to enact Codes which breach the Act in exceptional circumstances.

For reasons to complicated to get into here, I believe both of these are mostly a waste of time (though the latter measure has a sounder objective than the former) compared to other, more worthwhile, objectives.   The problem is that there has not been enough analysis conducted to explain where the real shortcomings of our animal welfare legislation lie, and without this type of research, advocating for change, and being able to prove the assumed deficiencies in any type of sophisticated manner remains difficult.


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