Emma, a healthy little dog who looked like the photo here, is dead. She was killed because the woman she lived with died and declared in her Will that Emma should also be killed and buried with her.

The Chesterfield, VA, shelter, where Emma was taken after her person’s death, said “finding Emma a new family wouldn’t have been a problem, but [that the executors] from the dead woman’s estate were determined to execute the will (and this healthy, friendly dog).” Although officials from the shelter say they pleaded with her family, they ultimately turned the dog over to the executor who had the dog killed.* Had the Chesterfield shelter refused to comply, they would have likely won in court.

Over 20 years ago, California courts invalidated a similar Will provision that called for Sido, a dog, to be killed upon her owner’s death, after the San Francisco SPCA refused to turn the dog over to the family. The court found that it violated California’s public policy that dogs who have a place to go be killed just because the dog’s human caretaker requests it. Sido went on to live a long and happy life.

It was not the first court to make such a ruling.

In a case over a similar Will provision, a Pennsylvania Court, as far back as 1964, noted,

[T]he strength of the public sentiment in favor of preserving the lives of these animals. This is in accord with the upward development of the humane instinct in mankind for the preservation of life of all kinds, not only of human life but of the life of the lesser species.

It likewise found that the provision to kill a healthy dog on the “owner’s” death violated public policy, citing a 1924 treatise that a Will “cannot command anything that is wicked, or against justice, piety, equity, etc.” Killing a healthy dog, ruled the court, is wicked.

Since then, other courts have made similar rulings. In Vermont, for example, a man demanded that his healthy horses be killed upon his death because he feared they would not go to good homes. A group of horse advocates filed a lawsuit and the Court ruled in their favor, finding that animals have a status more than mere property. In order to protect the horses, the Judge ordered that “the court will oversee the placement of Mr. Brand’s horses and will prohibit any future transfer of ownership without approval of the court.”

Animals have rights independent of the people they are connected to. Thankfully, more and more of our laws are enshrining those rights into law: in cruelty, divorce, and probate cases. But animals need more legal recognition. They need legal personhood, which will protect them in all cases where an animal’s best interest might be in conflict with that of the people around him/her, as courts do for children and other at-risk groups. A guardian ad litem would give voice to animals like Emma who currently lack one. As the Oregon Supreme Court recently ruled, “As we continue to learn more about the interrelated nature of all life, the day may come when humans perceive less separation between themselves and other living beings than the law now reflects.”

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* Emma was killed by a veterinarian. It’s a violation of the veterinarian’s oath to protect animals and prevent suffering. According to a veterinarian of conscience, “Veterinarians protect animal life. We do not end it to serve the professed needs of a culture that has not yet become sufficiently enlightened with respect to the welfare of its animals. Until it does, we will not participate in this practice, regardless of what our larger society deems acceptable.” She goes on to argue that a veterinarian who kills healthy animals “should do so at the risk of losing their license to practice veterinary medicine.”

Killing a healthy or treatable dog, cat, rabbit, or other animal companion should be illegal, regardless of whether the animal is at a shelter or taken to a veterinarian. This should be the law even if it is what the family requests. Not only is it unethical to kill healthy and treatable animals, but a recent study found that “over one-third (36.9%) of dogs originally brought in by their owners for euthanasia could, upon further evaluation by staff and discussion with owners, be made available for adoption…” It further found that, after assessment, these animals “had medical or behavioral concerns that were amenable to resolution, as opposed to all having terminal health conditions or intractable behavior problems.” 

The No Kill Advocacy Center, my organization, has model legislation to make it illegal. For a copy of the Do No Harm Act, click here.

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