Emma, a healthy dog, was brought into a shelter in the U.S. State of Virginia on March 8. Her human companion had passed away and there was apparently no one else to care for Emma. Although the shelter could have easily found a new home for Emma, who was a Shih Tzu (of the sort pictured above), they just held her because whoever brought Emma to the shelter did not have the authority to sign her over to the shelter.
So Emma remained at the shelter until March 22, when the executor of the dead woman’s estate came to the shelter and stated that the deceased had left a directive that Emma was to be killed and cremated , and that her ashes were to be placed in the dead woman’s coffin.
And that is what was done. Emma was killed. Notice that I did not say that she was “euthanized.” Euthanasia is when death is for the benefit of the being who is killed. If, for example, an animal is suffering from cancer and no longer has any quality of life, killing the animal would be described as an instance of euthanasia. But Emma was healthy. It was not in her interest to die. She was not euthanized. She was killed. She was cremated. Her ashes were placed in the casket of the dead woman and buried.
Many people find this to be outrageous. Emma was a healthy dog. What could possibly explain why it was alright to kill her?
The answer is simple: Emma was the property of the dead woman. The dead woman was her owner.
Most of us think that animals matter morally. That is, we reject the idea that animals are just things that have no moral value.
But the reality is that, despite what we think, animals are just things as far as the law is concerned. That is, they have no intrinsic or inherent value; like all other property, they have only an economic or extrinsic value. They have no value except the value that we, their human owners, accord them.
As property owners, we have the right to accord our pets a high value and treat them as loved and cherished members of our families just as we have the right to accord them a low value and use our dogs as little more than living burglar alarms or our cats as mouse catchers. As long as we provide minimal food, water, and shelter to the animal, we may treat the animal pretty much as we choose. We cannot inflict physical harm on the animal for no reason whatsoever but we may legally inflict physical harm incidental to a purpose of use. For example, physical force/punishment may be used to train a dog to be a guard dog. An owner may apply physical force/punishment to a dog who jumps on visitors. And owners can choose to value their pet’s life at zero and take the dog, cat, or other animal to a veterinarian to be killed. or to a shelter where the animal will be killed if another home is not found.
Make no mistake about it — many, many dogs, cats, and other pets are not accorded a high value by their owners. They have terrible lives and often very unpleasant deaths. The idea that most pets have loving homes for their entire lives is very wrong.
The status of animals as property is of such importance that the human owner gets to value the animal’s life even after the owner is dead and even when the animal could easily have been placed in another home. It is ironic that Emma’s owner probably had a strong bond with Emma. She wanted them to be buried together. But because the dog was property, her life was entirely within her owner’s control. It was the owner’s right to have her killed.
Every year, millions of people surrender healthy animals to shelters. They sign over ownership of those animals to the shelter. And every year, millions of those animals are killed if the shelters are unable to find new homes.
My partner and I live with several dogs we rescued from shelters where they would have been killed if homes were not found. We have one dog who is blind and deaf. He is the product of a breeder who bred two merle shelties in an effort to produce a “white” merle, which can fetch a hefty price. The problem is that about one in four double merle puppies is born blind, deaf, or both. But it’s perfectly legal to breed these animals knowing these disabilities will result. After all, they’re just property.
It’s not just our pets who have the status of property. Just about all the animals we interact with are someone’s property. The approximately 70 billion land animals we eat every year are the property of the farmers who raised and killed them. These animals are then sold to stores, who own their slaughtered carcasses, and then they are sold to us.
If you want to know why food animals are so badly treated, the answer is the same: they are property. It costs money to protect their interests. Farmers generally protect those interests only to the extent that it is economically efficient to do so. Providing greater protection will result in a product that costs more to produce. And someone has got to pay for that increased cost. There are places that sell supposedly “higher welfare” animal products but the reality is that the most “humanely” produced animal products involve treatment that would, were humans involved, constitute torture. It’s a simple matter of economics.
I suspect that we will hear the opportunistic animal welfare groups call for laws — “Emma’s Law “ has a good fundraising ring— to prohibit including pets in the burials of deceased humans. These groups have a real talent for tinkering with campaigns that keep donations coming in but do nothing to change the status of animals as property. Even if “Emma’s Law” passes, it won’t make any real difference. Human owners will still be allowed to have their animal property killed or to dump them at shelters.
If animals are going to matter morally, we must stop treating them as things. And as long as animals are property, they cannot be anything more than things. But if we recognize the right of animals to not be property, then we must reject animal exploitation. We cannot justify eating, wearing, or otherwise using animals for human purposes, particularly in situations in which there is no plausible claim of necessity. We don’t need to eat animals to be healthy. That is clear. But we must also reject the institution of pet ownership. If animals are property, then, as a practical matter, they will be at risk being killed in a shelter or otherwise having their interests discounted or ignored.
And even the ones we love may end up being killed and placed in our coffins.
Note: I discussed this issue on the Michael Smerconish Show on CNN on May 25, 2019.