April 9, 2014

Pets are not toasters: David Grimm on the fight for animal rights



Fido’s calling his senator. Via Shutterstock.

David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, believes what every person who calls their dog or cat their “fur-baby” has been telling you for years: pets are people, too. Well, not exactly people.

In an interview with Wired’s Brandon Keim, Grimm explains why he believes that pets are more than property:

“We’ve known for centuries that animals are capable of love and a variety of emotions. Darwin had this famous line: “The difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.” What he meant was that if we find a certain emotion in chimpanzees, and dogs are not that distantly related, they probably have it, too.”

Grimm’s book explores the past and speculates on the future of animal-human relationships. Not the kind of relationships that get you thrown in jail, but the idea that your pet is part of your family. Legally speaking, currently “your cat or dog is no different than a toaster or a couch,” according to Grimm. Cat ladies, put down your catnip-flavored weapons—there are those making an argument to put Fluffy in a new legal catbox.

Grimm’s argument isn’t without its missteps—in the interview he unfortunately compares animals’ legal standing to that of slaves, saying:

“This is a discussion we had to have 150 years ago as slavery was ending and blacks were considered property. There was a backlash: emancipation was going to put plantation owners out of business. But as a society, we decided that didn’t matter. Acknowledging that slaves were people was the right thing to do.”

But, overall, Grimm is primarily interested in reanalyzing what qualifies as a person. While he admits “We’re not yet at that point” where cats and dogs should legally be recognized as people, he is in favor of creating a “living property” designation for Fido, so “dogs and cats could have some rights, even some responsibilities, but legally be like children.”

Grimm acknowledges that the legal system isn’t amenable to the idea of nonhuman rights. This is, of course, a somewhat slippery slope: granting limited rights to domestic animals means that feral or wild animals could gain legal pull, but he seems hopeful that people will start seeing animals as almost-people, too. He explains:

“It’s only in the last decade or two that it’s been broadly socially acceptable to say a dog or cat is a family member. And a survey just came out showing that, over the last decade, there’s been a rise in the number of young people opposed to using animals in research. It’s a generation of kids for whom cats and dogs were almost like siblings. When they grow up and start thinking about animal research and habitat destruction, they filter their emotions through the animals they grew up with. They don’t see the animals outside their front door as abstract things.”

I understand Grimm’s desire for a legal system that’s more sympathetic to animal rights. However, fighting for expansive nonhuman rights when we still haven’t legally recognized the rights for people who share our genus and species is putting the horse before the cart.


Sadie Mason-Smith is a Melville House intern.