Sunday, November 07, 1999

Does your dog need services of a lawyer?




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Murray Pulfer would like to move to San Francisco. He believes he would be accorded more respect there. This is entirely possible.

        A campaign is under way in San Francisco to change the city code to read “guardian” whenever the term “owner” is used in reference to pets. Murray, the collie in charge of our house, clipped a copy of the Associated Press story about this matter and left it where he knew I would find it — right next to one of my moccasins, which he had also “clipped.”

Pet Pride and tofu biscuits
        The article quoted a woman named Anita Carswell, who says she is guardian of 10 cats. “I think if this can't happen in San Francisco, where can it happen?” Ms. Carswell says. Well put.

        “Ultimately we want to elevate the status of animals from that of property to that of individuals with needs and rights of their own,” says Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals, which spearheaded the proposal.

        This is not just an issue being debated in the land of Pet Pride Day and tofu dog biscuits. Steven M. Wise, who once filed suit on behalf of a dolphin held captive by aquarium owners, will be teaching a course in animal rights law at Harvard this spring. And a recent New York Bar Association conference included a session on the “Legal Status of Non-Human Animals.”

        Well, this is worrisome. Murray already can be insufferable. I can only imagine what might happen if he retains the services of an attorney.

        “We've spent 20 years developing this area of the law,” says Sandra Tischler, of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, based in Petaluma, Calif. “Now we're pushing the envelope until we can press a case in which the animal is the plaintiff.”

        I had some time to think about this as I collected the day's accumulated dog hair from the carpeting, the furniture and my navy suit. I pondered while I brushed Murray's coat, and later when I shopped for his designer kibble.

        Murray was taking his customary afternoon siesta on the couch.

        “Hey,” I told him when I had finished picking up his toys, “we should talk about this.” Murray lifted his head, and I sat next to him on the floor, in the approved handmaiden position.

        “Just for the sake of argument, Murray,” I said, “what will happen to our already-clogged courts when lawyers start thus expanding their client base? What happens when a friendly session of butt-sniffing gets out of control? And then the poodle hires an attorney to recover damages from the pit bull? What about questions of paternity?”

The aroma of money
        Murray cocked one ear. I knew what he was thinking. Murray can be cynical when it comes to human nature. He believes attorneys might find their interest in such cases blunted if they discover that neither non-human animal has a Visa card.

        I pointed out that naturally the attorney would do a little sniffing of his own to find out if the non-human animal's guardian would be available to sign the check for a retainer or a settlement.

        Murray, who had no answer for this, munched thoughtfully on a sock.

        “Murray,” I said finally, “respect is a two-way street. I nearly broke my neck on that rawhide chew you left in the middle of the living room. And it wouldn't hurt you to accomplish your business with a little more speed when it's raining. Or when I'm standing there holding the end of a leash trying to look nonchalant while you anoint a neighbor's hydrangea right before her very eyes.”

        Besides, we don't need some lawyer to tell us how to act. Owner? Guardian? You can't legislate love. I told him that no matter what people in San Francisco decide, I will always be his humble servant.

        It was an emotional moment. Murray lifted his head from the toilet bowl, wagging his tail. He scratched himself vigorously, exercising his right to act like a non-human animal.

        And I respect that.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE