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Is the law a cat bigot? Has the law gone to the dogs?

Howard Kurtz - 8/21/2012

Has the law really gone to the dogs?

My cat is at the vet's office having minor surgery and as a result my mind is pretty much right in there with her.  This morning, as I looked around the waiting room at all of the stressed out pet parents it struck me that there is a dramatic disconnect between how we value our pets and how the law values our pets.  Don't get me wrong, I love my vet.  She has lovingly and skillfully cared for my cats for over 10 years.  But if we put that aside for the moment and imagine that for years I have unwittingly taken my cats to the worst veterinarian in the world.  Imagine further that as a result of this “world's worst vet” giving my cat a vaccine that should only be used on elephants, my cat dies.  Now imagine that this same vet has previously caused the death of many other people’s cats and dogs due to similar grossly negligent actions.  Surely I should be able to recover damages to compensate me for the loss of my friend and companion.  The stark truth of the matter though is that all I would be able to recover for the negligent killing of my family member would be the actual monetary value of the cat.  Do you know how inexpensively you can buy or adopt a cat?  No matter how egregious the conduct or how extreme the negligence, under the law you can recover nothing more than what it would cost to simply buy another cat.

This makes for a fascinating contrast with how harming or stealing animals is treated in criminal law.  Killing an animal by starvation is a actually a felony.  Similarly, intentionally and cruelly beating an animal is a felony.  Stealing a dog is also a felony.  I am somewhat offended however that larceny of a cat is only a felony if the value of the cat is in excess of $1,000 (which is more than just a little unlikely); otherwise it is a simple misdemeanor and thus far less serious an offense.  I personally love dogs and cats equally but apparently the law is a cat bigot.

One of my first and fondest memories as a lawyer was from 1992 in Cumberland County.  I was in court with a client, awaiting my turn.  I bided my time watching a colleague and friend who was also new at the time and is now a sitting District Court Judge.  My friend had pled his client guilty to misdemeanor larceny in front of one of the toughest judges ever to have donned a robe in North Carolina, the Honorable Sol Cherry.  The ‘property’ that was stolen was a dog.  For whatever reason, whether from nerves were just a mental lapse, my friend implored the judge for mercy by saying, in essence, “but Your Honor, it was only a dog.”

Judge Cherry leaned forward and stared down from the bench.   Through clenched teeth he said, “I lost a dog once . . . worse than losing a child.”  I understand exactly how he must have felt.



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