Declaring cats and dogs should have fundamental rights, an assemblyman in California has introduced a law that would create a Bill of Rights for the two most popular companion animal species.
The text of the proposed legislation covers the basics including the right to food and water, veterinary care and a life free from abuse, neglect and anxiety. It recognizes felines and canines as sentient animals who need mental stimulation, and says adopting means committing to caring for an animal for its entire life.
But it’s really about pushing for an even greater effort to spay and neuter both species to avoid euthanizing almost a million unwanted cats and dogs every year.
There’s been great progress in the last decade alone: In 2011, kill shelters and animal control departments in the US put down more than 2.6 million cats and dogs. In recent years that number has fallen to 920,000, including 530,000 cats, according to the ASPCA.
That’s still a staggering number of lives taken, and animal advocates think the US can continue the downward trend in euthanizing pets via efforts to educate people and execute trap, neuter, return (TNR) plans.
Whether Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s bill would help accomplish that is unclear.
It’s already a crime in California to harm an animal as opposed to the majority of states, where pets are considered property and the consequences for hurting or killing someone’s beloved cat or dog don’t go beyond providing monetary compensation. (However, it’s notable that the proposed cat and dog bill of rights would be added to California’s Food and Agriculture Code, not the Criminal Code. The fact that animal welfare legislation continues to exist in agriculture law instead of criminal is a relic of times when the only laws concerning animals were written to regulate their ownership, sale and slaughter.)
Santiago’s bill doesn’t specify a new plan for spaying and neutering more felines and canines. It doesn’t include funds for TNR or fund new enforcement efforts, and it doesn’t provide welfare groups with new tools.
Mostly what it does is require shelters and rescues to display the pet bill of rights in “a conspicuous place” or face a potential $250 fine. It doesn’t even specify how money collected via fines would be used.
But a bill of rights “changes the conversation” around animal welfare, the lawmaker said.
“It sounds pretty simple,” Santiago said, “but we need to talk about it.”
Santiago’s proposed legislation has the support of Judie Mancuso, president of the animal advocacy group Social Compassion in Legislation.
“Those rights go beyond just food, water, and shelter. As stated in the bill, dogs and cats have the right to be respected as sentient beings that experience complex feelings that are common among living animals while being unique to each individual. We’re thrilled to be codifying this into law.”
There’s a long way to go yet for the potential law.
The bill doesn’t have any co-sponsors and it’s not clear how much support it has among other lawmakers. Without significant support it might not be put forth for consideration at all. New York’s assembly, for example, declined to put a declawing ban on the floor for a vote for years until it finally garnered enough support among politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as voters and organizations like the PAW Project. The declawing ban finally passed in October of 2019.
Even if Santiago gets co-sponsors and convinces enough colleagues to proceed, it would have to pass in the state senate as well. As for PITB, we think failing the first time around might not be a bad thing if it forces Santiago to think bigger and smarter so it includes real measures to get more pets spayed and neutered. A bill of rights is a nice sentiment, but it won’t change much the way it’s written.
If Santiago and future allies lay out a competent plan for tackling companion animal overpopulation, perhaps it could be a model for other state to follow.