Looking for Oswald? You can usually find him in the crook of my arm.
Veterinarians, boarding kennels, and others in the business of making money off our great love of animals are not shy about acknowledging what they call “the deep bond humans develop with their pets” when we are writing the checks to them. As one of their industry organizations recently acknowledged: “A majority of pet owners share their beds with furry friends. People take their dogs to work, create Instagram accounts for them and help them complete bucket lists. People, it’s clear, increasingly think of pets as family — or fellow people.”
This helps explain why the average cost of a veterinary visit is North of $500, with some spending over $1,000. All told, Americans spent $70 billion on their companion animals last year, the seventh largest sector of the retail economy, growing at a pace 50% greater than the economy overall.
But when a veterinarian, boarding kennel, or groomer proves incompetent, when they perform below a standard of reasonableness and wrongly injure, kill, or allow your beloved companion to die, they will argue in court that the animal has no real value. All the pretty talk about the “human-animal bond” is forgotten. Their claim that “The attachment humans can develop with animals is beyond dispute” becomes nothing more than foolish sentimentality. It’s a one way ticket and groups like the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Kennel Club want to keep it that way. They aren’t the only ones.
PETA, which raises over $50 million each year on the love people have for animals, also considers it a one way street. After stealing and killing Maya, a family’s dog, they argued in court that she was worthless and, at best, the family could only recover the market value of the dog. In other words, PETA’s position is that Maya was like a toaster. If you break it, you just throw it away and get a new one.
Tragically, too many courts agree. But the authors of a new study in the Journal of Cost-Benefit Analysis want to change that. They set about to monetize the value of a dog. And the sum they came up with (and their explanation as to why) was $10,000. (By contrast, a human is valued at $10,000,000.) In doing so, they acknowledge that most of us consider our animal companions priceless. But they note, “As true as this answer may be, it provides little guidance on how to value the effect of private and public decisions on our four-legged companions.” In other words, they claim, it gives little guidance to courts or legislatures when creating public policy or compensating the families of animal victims. They may have a point.
Of course, there are those of us in the legal profession who believe such guidance already exists in the form of compensatory, sentimental/intrinsic, and punitive damages (and even declaratory and injunctive relief), but courts and legislatures, bowing to industry fear mongering, remain largely mired in 19th century precedent. To many courts, dogs are like toasters. And so perhaps a monetary minimum value of $10,000 in compensatory damages, with the understanding that other damages may also be appropriate (such as cost spent on veterinary care, sentimental damages, and punitive damages when the conduct is reckless or intentional) might help move the ball forward. $10,000, while inadequate from my own perspective, is a far cry from a $30 market value for a rescued dog. And if courts and legislatures adopt it, then we can shift the fight to whether that figure is high enough as a mandatory minimum.
We can also use that figure as a bridge to something more akin to their actual intrinsic and relational worth. Because despite industry doublespeak, if someone harmed Oswald, my dog, I can certainly always get another dog, but I can never, ever get another Oswald. And as much as that matters to me, it is everything to him.
The study, Monetizing Bowser: A Contingent Valuation of the Statistical Value of Dog Life, is here.
An article by the authors of the study, What’s the value of your dog’s life, and why it matters, is here.
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