I have been wanting to write about the massive — in the hundreds of millions pounds — recall of tainted pet food sold in America, but there hasn’t been time for reflection and distance to help provide context and meaning of pet owners unwittingly killing their pets with food they purchase to keep them healthy.

I realize now is the moment to step forward in light of today’s New York Times article — explaining how it is a conflict of cultures, an acquiescence of values, and a shared economic drive between companies and countries to save as much money as possible — that threatened our animals and killed our pets:

ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here. “Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”

Melamine is at the center of a recall of 60 million packages of pet food, after the chemical was found in wheat gluten linked this month to the deaths of at least 16 pets and the illness of possibly thousands of pets in the United States. No one knows exactly how melamine (which is not believed to be particularly toxic) became so fatal in pet food, but its presence in any form of American food is illegal. Is it scrap melamine that is making our pets sick?

Is it tainted wheat gluten? Is it something else we don’t know about yet? One good thing about ordering pet food online is the breadcrumbs that interaction leaves behind. We received notice from our online pet food merchant that the elite Iams cat food we bought for Jack The Cat was part of the massive recall — but by the time we received notice of that recall he’d already eaten the food two months before. We wondered back to the time he was eating the food to think if he was sick or not.

We couldn’t remember any negative consequence. Our vet told us to keep an eye on him and if anything extraordinary happened, we should bring him in right away. We’ve been lucky so far that Jack seems fine. The one thing we cannot yet know is how the ingested tainted food will affect our pets in the long run. Are Jack’s kidneys damaged? Is there some other pernicious ill effect on his body to come?

Is the people food supply safe or not? As global economies stretch and national borders constrict to become common and less international, we are faced with stark differences in healthcare and unilateral crises in Public Health. How do we — as a culture of advanced science and urbanization — deal with agrarian nations that do not yet have the same human or animal protections in place as part of their governance of society and want for citizen longevity? In America, we are beginning to realize pets are more than property even though the law does not allow for that protection.

Today, if your pet is killed by someone — or some pet food company — you can only collect on the value of your pet at the time of “purchase” and, like a used car, the longer you “own” the pet, the lower the depreciation. You cannot be compensated for “pain and suffering” and emotional loss if your pet is unwillingly taken from you. Pets, under current law, are things, not beings.

What the current law fails to concede is pets grow in value — and never lessen in want — the longer you have them in your life. As we move forward as a society, so too, must the community relationship we have with our pets. We were made aware of this disconnect between the law and emotional society during hurricane Katrina where people were forced to abandon their pets if they wanted to be rescued. Many pets were lost and killed in that hurricane and its ongoing and devastating aftermath. Cities like New York realized their emergency evacuations for people must also address the inclusion of pets in an organized escape to safety.

We used to live in an agricultural society where animals were work machines and had no value other than their meat and their muscle. Killing animals for profit — or because they had outlived their economic usefulness on the farm — was ordinary life in the fields and valleys. Our living and our economy is now based more in the urban core and our understanding of the importance of animals has changed as well. Instead of seeing them only as beasts of burden we can also relate to them as friends and associates.

For many today — especially those stuck in the urban core — pets have replaced children and the connection people used to have with their children they now have with their pets. Some may argue pets are a harder and a deeper personal commitment than having children because pets are like perpetual two-year olds who always need to be bathed, fed, walked and cleaned up after — they will never be totally self-surviving without direct intervention. With the added emotional value provided to and from our pets today, the argument for us all now becomes one of how we will properly honor our pets as a society.

While the death of a pet may not compare to the death of a person under the law — we must admit that, for many, the loss of a pet is just as emotionally devastating and psychically wounding as the loss of a human beloved — and the law must begin to recognize, and compensate for, that loss. Is asking for $10,000.00 USD for the emotional loss in a purposeful killing of a pet appropriate compensation or not? If we are to honor each other and have dominion over animals, our first instinct must be to love our pets first and then value them always.

13 Comments

  1. The last couple of times I’ve gone to continuing legal education seminars in Las Vegas, there has been a Trusts & Estates program. One of the hot topics has been people setting up trusts to provide for the safety, care and well being of their pets after he or she passes away.
    I bet that someone will try to push the law to find that pets are something more than the personal property that they are considered to be under the law today. Right now, it could be argued that if your dog was killed by tainted food, you are only entitled to that dog’s replacement value.
    As animals have become companions, I foresee people suing for loss of companionship with their dog or cat and for the emotional damages that result from losing a loved pet. In the wake of the widespread threat to pets posed by tainted foreign-made foods, I wouldn’t be surprised that test cases pop up to get people used to the idea of the value of pets being tied to the emotional benefit they provide their owners. A lot of these cases will be lost, but it only takes a couple to succeed to get the laws to start changing.

  2. Hi Chris!
    I love it there is at least discussion in legal circles about the importance animals have in our lives. That shows a greater respect for those living entities we choose to find and care for in our lives beyond the human.
    I think it is a wonderful thing you can provide for your animal’s welfare after your death. That’s the one thing that terrifies me about having pets as we get older: What happens if you kick it but your animal is there alone without you? Currently that animal will most likely be euthanized with you gone. Having legal and financial protections in place for orphaned animals is a wonderful step forward.
    I know some people who lost their pets to the tainted food will sue for more than just the value of the animal and I am hoping a few of them win to set a precedent. They want money for their pain and suffering and loss and they should get something more than a depreciated $10 over the life of the animal.
    Valuing animals gives us better and deeper definition as caretakers — and that can only make us better overall when it comes to being fully aware of the gifts entrusted to us for the longevity and propagation of us all forward into the future.

  3. Hi David,
    I bet we’ll see some sort of consideration be given to pets and the value they add to people’s lives in the future — especially when the economic value of a pet might not be much if it was adopted from an animal shelter, but provided its owner with many years of loyalty and friendship that only pets can provide.
    The trusts are a great idea because they can be written to ensure that the animals are given the best treatment. The trust could require that regular reports be given by a vet to the trustee to make sure the pet is being treated well and humanely — otherwise it would be easy for someone to take the pet and use all of the money for their own benefit.
    Indiana has a pet trust statute:
    IC 30-4-2-18
    Trust for care of animal
    Sec. 18. (a) A trust may be created to provide for the care of an animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime.
    (b) A trust authorized by this section terminates as follows:
    (1) If the trust is created to provide for the care of one (1) animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime, the trust terminates on the death of the animal.
    (2) If the trust is created to provide for the care of more than one (1) animal alive during the settlor’s lifetime, the trust terminates on the death of the last surviving animal.
    (c) A trust authorized by this section may be enforced by the following:
    (1) A person appointed in the terms of the trust.
    (2) A person appointed by the court, if the terms of the trust do not appoint a person.
    (d) A person having an interest in the welfare of an animal for whose care a trust is established may request the court to:
    (1) appoint a person to enforce the trust; or
    (2) remove a person appointed to enforce the trust.
    (e) Property of a trust authorized by this section may be applied only to the trust’s intended use, except to the extent the court determines that the value of the trust property exceeds the amount required for the trust’s intended use.
    (f) Except as provided in the terms of the trust, property not required for the trust’s intended use must be distributed to the following:
    (1) The settlor, if the settlor is living.
    (2) The settlor’s successors in interest, if the settlor is deceased.
    As added by P.L.238-2005, SEC.26.

  4. Double ouch! I know a lost of Midwesern families — with family leaders in their 60’s and 70’s who think of animals as filthy and so they are not allowed inside because animals are machines and not living beings.