I understand why Fark has a “Florida” tag, given all the inanity that percolates up from the Heat Stroke State. It seems like whenever I’m looking for an odd story, I’m rarely disappointed by looking south. Anyway, here’s the latest one.
A Louisiana couple say their two dogs were removed from a post-Katrina animal shelter and ended up at a Florida humane society chapter. The Florida agency gave up the dogs for adoption to two separate Florida residents. Now the Louisianans want their dogs back, and argue that the Florida shelter shouldn’t have let the dogs go. The Florida possessors want to keep the dogs, and one woman argues that it isn’t even the same dog. (I hope her lawyer uses the classic alternative argument tactic: You had no dogs; If you had dogs, you didn’t lose them; If you lost them, she didn’t adopt them; If she did adopt them, she doesn’t have to return them…).
Two things really struck me about this story. First, the vehemence of some of the commenters at the newspaper’s website is ridiculous. There are comments accusing the Florida people of stealing the dogs and suggesting they will burn in hell for having done so. All this when it certainly appears that the adopters made, at most, an honest mistake of trusting a shelter that might not have had the legal right to give away the dogs. Is it the duty of prospective pet owners to investigate the ownership of animals they would like to adopt at a shelter? And that’s even assuming it’s the same dog! Of course, my nonscientific impression is that people who feel compelled to post comments on newspaper web sites tend to be the kind of people to jump to conclusions of guilt based on the slimmest of factual bases. There’s certainly no indication that the adopters acted maliciously. This story seems especially unsuited to the kind of vitriol posted today.
Second, the judge in the case decided that the Louisiana folks had a colorable enough claim that the Florida possessors should post a bond to maintain possession of the dogs through the duration of the trial. Any guesses what that bond was? I won’t make you click through to find out, but I was surprised to see that it was $200,000! I don’t do any property cases, but that seems incredibly high to me. You can buy a whole lot of puppy chow with two hundred grand. Maybe the judge was going by some kind of guideline, but I have trouble understanding where a number that high came from. The defendants suggested $1500 (for a purebred St. Bernard) and $750 (for a shepherd mix) for the bond, and even if a higher bond than those suggestions was appropriate, is there no amount less than $200,000 that would have been sufficient? I could see having a high bond when the property is something expensive that we’re worried might disappear before the trial ends, like, say, a yacht or a classic painting, or something the loss of which will cause the plaintiff to lose money while the trial goes on, like a money-making patent or something. But these dogs, whatever their sentimental value, don’t cost $200,000, and imposing a bond that high suggests, counterintuitively, that the defendants would try to get rid of the dogs prior to judgment. A bond that high, which will probably force the Florida defendants to surrender the dogs to the Louisiana plaintiffs, is nothing less than a pre-judgment that the plaintiffs are the rightful owners.
These two developments — the unhinged commentary and the exorbitant bond — point to the tension in the law over how to treat animals. Pets are property. Note that I didn’t say “just property.” But reading those comments, and seeing the judge’s reaction, indicates that they are treating these animals like they’re people. This story and the comments wouldn’t be out of place in relation to a custody dispute over a kid named Bernard Saint, instead of a St. Bernard dog. If animal-lovers want pets to have some sort of special status in the law (quasi-property, quasi-family law?), they should call their legislators. Until then, it doesn’t make sense to twist property law out of whack because a judge can’t say no to a wagging tail and a wet nose.
If I were a Property professor, I might consider putting this case on my exam. No, I wouldn’t automatically ding the “Pets Are People Too” crowd, but they’d have to give me some justification for treating animals specially in property law, as well as some rational way such a system would apply broadly, in addition to these idiosyncratic tearjerker cases. Also, I wonder what kind of precedent Florida residents might want to apply for future hurricane-induced pet/owner separations. And, finally, as one thoughtful commenter to the news story suggests, what duties do the Louisiana residents owe their dogs? If we want to give animals special treatment in the law, does that mean pet owners owe their animals the same duty of care that parents owe children? Would these commenters be so kind to Louisiana parents who dropped their kids off at a shelter and lost track of them for over a year?