Portland is Home to the World’s First Animal Law Professor. We Asked Her About the Biggest Legal Issues With Pets.

Attorney at paws.

(Abby Gordon)

According to the state of Oregon, your pet is equivalent to a couch.

In the eyes of the law, your pet is considered your property, which means that courts view your dog the same way they view a piece of furniture. In divorce cases, this can get messy: Pets go to whoever can prove they're the owner, not who's best able to take care of them.

"The law doesn't really handle animals well," says Kathy Hessler, professor of animal law at Lewis & Clark College, the first and largest animal law program in the world. She's also the first full-time animal law professor in the world. Until Michigan State University hired a full-time animal lawyer last fall, she was the only one.

(Abby Gordon)

But interest in animal law has spiked in the past few years.

"People who have animals in their home are seeing them more as part of the family rather than property and rather than working animals or agriculture animals," says Hessler.

Though Oregon isn't one of the two states to have recently created a legal framework for pet custody cases, Hessler says Oregon is one of the most progressive pet law states. "We're a state where we have agriculture, we have laboratory testing of animals," she says. "There's a lot of people here thinking about these issues."

Animal law is one of the fastest-changing arenas of law in the country. So we talked to Hessler about the most interesting areas of pet law, and where Oregon stands.

(Abby Gordon)

Naming pets in wills

Until little more than a year ago, there was no secure way to will money to your pet. "There's a saying in the law that you can't leave property to property, so that got really messy," Hessler says. "People were doing these charitable trusts, and they weren't always honored." In November 2016, Oregon passed a statute to create pet trusts so people could leave funds for the care of their pets.

Pet custody

A year ago, Alaska passed an amendment to allow courts to require shared custody of a pet, or even financial support that's basically the pet equivalent of child support. Last September, Illinois passed a similar amendment. Pet custody legislation has yet to make its way to Oregon, "We could make an agreement and ask the court to acknowledge that agreement," she says, "but the court couldn't make one of us do something we didn't want to do."

Animals in entertainment

Rights for animals in entertainment are a growing area of animal law. "SeaWorld is restricted from breeding new orcas," she says. "You may have seen that Ringling Brothers shut down." In 2014, two years before Ringling announced it would close for good, Clatsop County became the largest jurisdiction in the country to ban many of the abusive handling tools the circus used on elephants and tigers, which effectively banned Ringling from the county.

(Abby Gordon)

Animals as victims of crimes

If someone abuses a pet, it's usually considered a crime against the owner, not the animal itself. "Oregon is unique in the country in that the state Supreme Court has ruled that animals can be seen as victims of crimes," Hessler says.

That's due to the 2014 ruling in State v. Nix. Arnold Nix was arrested after police found 20 starving horses and goats living among decaying animal carcasses on his Umatilla County farm. Instead of charging Nix with one count of neglect, the court convicted him of 20. That meant the court had to treat each animal as a victim of neglect, rather than as a collective entity simply described as property.

The ruling applies only to criminal cases of abuse and neglect and doesn't apply to agriculture or laboratory animals, but according to Hessler, that's still significant. "It's been clear that they really are trying, in legislatures all over the country but certainly in Oregon, to protect animals from unnecessary cruelty and harm," she says. "The best way to give effect to that goal is to say that animals can actually be seen as victims of a situation."

There's still a long way to go, but the rapid change in the past few years is reason to be optimistic. "The good news is," Hessler says, "state legislatures and policymakers are beginning to take these issues a lot more seriously." ¨

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