Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Are the contents of a dog private? and other questions regarding the property status of dogs

dog snow terrier jumper
Poppy, who had nothing to do with the court case discussed below, is enjoying the winter sun in snowy New South Wales. 

What is inside a dog? Given that dogs are property under the law, is performing a blood test for the purposes of establishing a case of neglect an invasion of the owner’s privacy?

Not, thankfully, according to the Supreme Court ofOregon, US, which had to decide on this matter following conviction of a dog owner for second-degree animal neglect. The dog was seized and examined by a veterinarian, who found the dog in poor body condition (1.5/9 - ideally should be 5/9). Blood was drawn to establish whether the animal had a medical condition, e.g. metabolic disease, to determine if the emaciation could be explained this way. It could not.

The dog owner attempted to suppress the blood test results, essentially on the grounds that the dog was her property and looking inside that property without a warrant was like opening a car boot.

The judgement provides a fascinating summary of different analogies used by both sides in the case – is taking blood more like test-firing a gun to see if it works, versus simply opening a car boot? Or is drawing blood from a dog similar to medical examination of a child taken into protective custody on suspicion of abuse? Is the drawing of blood by a veterinarian different than the drawing of blood by a stranger in the street? (Yes, they found, it is).

The status of animals as property under law poses some interesting challenges, played out in this case. Ultimately the court decided that while animals are property, and can be lawfully owned, they are subject to protections (such as anti-cruelty legislation) to which inanimate objects are not. They are capable of experiencing pain, fear and distress -inanimate objects are not.

Juno, the dog, was not like “an opaque container” and her “contents” consisted of “the stuff that dogs and other living mammals are made of: organs, bones, nerves, other tissues, and blood…And the chemical composition of Juno’s blood was a product of physiological processes that go on inside of Juno, not ‘information’ that defendant placed in Juno for safekeeping or to conceal from view”.

In the words of the prosecutor at trial, inside of the dog was just “more dog”. (Why are there not TV courtroom dramas based on these kinds of cases?)

The judgement is a fascinating read because it touches on the deeper philosophical issue of the consideration of animals under the law, and suggests that anti-cruelty legislation (which has existed in some cases now for hundreds of years) supports the notion that animals are not property in the same way that toasters and cars and sunglasses are. Owners, and indeed persons responsible for animals, have obligations to animals that they do not have to toasters, cars and sunglasses.

You can read the full judgement here.