On Oct. 29, the alleged abuser in the now infamous “Puppy Doe” case was arraigned in Quincy, Mass., with bail set at $500,000 on charges of beating a female pit bull so badly that it had to be euthanized. And last month, the Massachusetts Appeals Court heard an appeal of a judgment awarding $8,608.05 to the plaintiff for injuries sustained when the defendants’ unleashed German shepherd violently attacked the plaintiff’s bichon frise — in its own yard.
At issue in both cases is the monetary figures and whether they are “excessive.” It is an important point, and one that could affect another high-profile animal rights case currently in process. Nestlé Purina PetCare recently lost an attempt to dismiss a $5 million class action filed against the company alleging that its treats made hundreds of dogs sick or fatally ill and may have poisoned many others. It’s likely that, should the case continue to move forward, the size of the claim will come into question.
Why the controversy about the dollar figures in the cases? After all, it’s just an animal. But that is exactly why these amounts are just and reasonable. A damaged television or cellphone can be replaced with a new, identical one, or even an upgraded model. A manufactured piece of property has a clear monetary value, but there is not the same identifiable value attached to a beloved pet, a being whose intrinsic value increases each day to the people who love it.
The defendants in the case of Pepper­mint, the bichon frise attacked by the German shepherd, argued that the veterinary costs far exceeded the replacement cost (based on fair market value) of the dog because a comparable bichon frise is not worth $8,600 on the open market. But that argument is flawed because the fair market value is based on what one would pay for that item.
Peppermint may not be worth $8,600 to anyone else, but he was certainly worth it to his owners, who would have spent almost any amount of money to save his life. To limit damages to replacement cost only would put owners in the terribly conflicting position of having to decide between being compensated for euthanizing their pets and incurring the costs to save them.
In this case, the defendant is essentially proposing that any time the veterinary costs exceed the replacement cost — even if those costs were incurred because of the heinous act of another — a pet owner should elect euthanasia because it is less expensive. Certainly this is not an outcome our legal system wants to encourage.
Much of animal law is centered on the principle that animals are property, lumped in with other tangible household items. But a fundamental difference exists between tangible property and animals: Refrigerators and sofas don’t feel pain and don’t give affection. Televisions aren’t considered “members of the family.” With these two cases, Massachusetts has a chance to be at the forefront of changing the way society perceives and treats the significance and status of animals in our lives.
The $500,000 bail amount in the Puppy Doe case makes Massachusetts only the second state in history to set a bail that high in animal-abuse cases. (In August, a Washington state judge set the same bail amount for a man accused of blowing up his family’s golden retriever.) In contrast, a Texas judge recently refused to increase a $10,000 bail for a man who allegedly mutilated and beheaded his neighbor’s cat. Having posted bail, the accused is now under house arrest.
With the long-established link between animal cruelty and later crimes of violent abuse, $10,000 for such a reprehensible act seems excessively low. On the civil side, the law of remedies allows for one who is wronged to be made whole. In many cases that deal with tangible items, this is fairly accomplished with replacing the damaged or destroyed item. This approach makes much sense. Why spend hundreds of dollars to fix a seven-year-old television, when for comparable money, one could get a new one? But that new television can be the same model, type, shape and size as the original, and it can have exactly the same (or better) features. The same is not true of pets with their unique personalities. The law needs to recognize this important distinction when it comes to valuing what an animal is worth.
The good news is that Massachusetts recognizes this. In 2002, the appeals court held that where the diminution of market value is unattainable (such as is the case with most pets), then restoration costs are appropriately awarded if reasonable and necessary due to damage inflicted by the defendant. That court delineated tangible property from “special purpose property” — that which has no ascertainable value. That case, it is important to note, involved restoration of a pier. Certainly if a pier can be found to possess such unique characteristics as to qualify it as “special property,” then an animal merits the same classification.
One of the purposes of punishment is to act as a deterrent. If the punishment does not hurt enough, then there is little to prevent future similar offenses. It is time for courts everywhere to take criminal injuries to animals seriously and to deviate from the traditional concept of animals as property in favor of a heightened, or special, property status. And we can start right now in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Diane Sullivan is an assistant dean and professor, and Holly Vietzke is a professor, at Massachusetts School of Law.