A Dog For Our Times

Anne Kingston

National Post
August 10, 2004
Comment – Page A12

The term "fur kids" has long been used in jest to describe pets who are treated like pampered children. Well, the joke’s on us with the recent legal precedent set by Crunchy the St. Bernard. As reported in this paper yesterday, four-year-old Crunchy, who lives in Warburg, Alberta, is the first animal to receive financial support in the wake of a marital breakup.

Kenneth Duncan, Crunchy’s human dad, has been ordered to pay his former common-in-law spouse, Barbara Dawn Boschee, $200 a month plus $2000 in retroactive payment. Boschee is looking after Crunchy because Duncan can’t find an apartment willing to accept is hirsute, slobbering dependant.

As appalling as it is for the judiciary to waste its time with such a petty matter, the decision serves a vital reminder that bringing living creatures into relationships has consequences and entails responsibilities. It’s a timely message given that more than $2 billion is owed in outstanding child support payments in Canada, though few seem to care that no government is enforcing effective programs to chase down the deadbeats.

Mr. Justice Donald Lee’s rejection of Duncan’s claim that $40 a month would cover Crunchy’s upkeep is also relevant to real-kid support decisions. The ruling recognizes the assigned value of caring for another is greater than merely the financial cost. As Lee wrote, "the cost of, and time required for, feeding and looking after the dog" justifies the larger sum.

The decision is most notable, however, for enshrining in law the belief held in some quarters that animals are human too. Indeed, Crunchy will receive almost one-third of what Duncan would have to pay for a child under the federal support guidelines. This line between pet and owner has been blurring for a while. Most pet owners admit in surveys that they see their animals as family. Certainly some animals are treated with far more respect than family members who might not offer the same unconditional love.

So twisted has become the anthropomorphizing of pets that the owner is now the endlessly devoted, intellectually inferior party. If dogs had humans for pets, they’d be far too sensible and compassionate to dress them up in Burberry rainware, or spritz them with Petiquette’s Dog Refreshing Essence, or put them on the Atkins diet.

Couples joke that having a pet provides a dry run for parenthood, but the unfunny reality is that it’s more difficult to bring an animal into a family than a child. Few potential parents are given the grilling potential pet-owners receive from humane societies.

Nor is it uncommon for couples to share custody of pets with far less acrimony than many children’s custody cases. I know of one instance where a large dog is ferried between a country house and a tiny city apartment every two weeks. It’s not in the animal’s best interest but it placates her parents.

The Crunchy decision will be hailed by animal rights groups who’ve been busy laying the groundwork for such challenges to the legal status of pets as property. In the United States, a growing number of jurisdictions, including Berkeley, Boulder and San Francisco as well as the state of Rhode Island, now refer to pet "guardians" rather than pet "owners." (Even the term "pet" is politically charged; far more PC is "companion animals".)

Courts now routinely award damages far exceeding an animal’s market value for emotional distress resulting from negligence leading to its injury or death. It’s only a matter of time before lawsuits are launched in an animal’s interest or veterinarians are barraged with malpractice suits.

Ghandi once said that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals. That is true. But the logic we use to justify the treatment of animals, be they pets or dinner, is also an important indicator of social values. The 18th-century utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, for instance, rightly understood that animal’s ability to suffer, rather than their ability to reason, entitled them to moral consideration. Similarly, Matthew Scully, author of the fine book. Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, argues that we are morally obligated to be kind to animals, not because they are our equals but because they’re vulnerable and at our mercy, just as a child or an incapacitated adult is.

There’s little question the Crunchy decision will offer amble opportunity to question that logic. Expect it to lead to studies on the effects of human divorce on animals. Family law firms will set up departments to deal with matrimonial squabbles over "companion animals." Litigators will jump on the canine and feline rights bandwagon. Let’s just wait, though, to see if the aftermath of Crusty serves in any way as much-needed instruction on how to treat and to value all of those other kids – the non-furry, far more important ones.


© 2004 National Post