A dog's day in court
When Jon Hammer enters his Brittany spaniel, Ms. Dale's Spooner, in dog shows, he knows the judges will most likely penalize him for - as he sees it - refusing to violate New York's animal anticruelty law.Skip to next paragraph
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That's because Spooner's tail is 10 inches long. According to the breed guidelines for Brittanys, it should have been cut off, or "docked," to no more than four inches.
For decades dog enthusiasts have accepted practices like docking and ear clipping as an entirely normal part of the grooming of many show dogs - including Doberman pinschers, boxers, and a number of terriers - making a dog's looks of paramount concern, and giving little or no thought to questions of the animal's rights.
But today some animal-rights advocates are raising their voices to say such practices are both cruel and unnecessary.
"That the American Kennel Club has a standard that for strictly cosmetic purposes requires cutting off a dog's tail seems ridiculous and arcane," Mr. Hammer says, explaining why he's spent four years fighting a lawsuit against the AKC and the American Brittany Club.
Last week, New York's highest court heard arguments in the case. Hammer claims that by enforcing the tail standard, the AKC and the ABC are violating a New York law that prohibits animal mutilation. Those groups counter that the standard is historic, important for keeping the dog's tail from getting entangled in brush when hunting, and that dogs with undocked tails are still welcome to compete.
In the end, the court's decision may be based less on the definition of cruelty than on whether Hammer, as a private citizen, has the right to enforce a criminal statute.
But his case is only the latest example in a growing tide of efforts to broaden, strengthen, and enforce anticruelty acts that exist on paper but haven't always meant much in practice.
"We've had these laws on the books for decades, but they've traditionally been statements of philosophical ideals rather than vigorously enforced laws," says Matthew Penzer, legal counsel at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Now, he says, "we're seeing a broader application of those laws."
Mr. Penzer points to several trends he finds encouraging:
• More states (41, at last count) make animal-cruelty offenses felonies rather than misdemeanors.
• Pet custody cases in which judges consider what's in the best interest of the animal rather than simply treating it as property.
• Instances, including cases in California and North Carolina last year, in which people convicted of animal cruelty were actually given jail sentences - nearly unheard of in the past.
• Decisions in wrongful-death cases that award pet owners compensation for emotional anguish and loss of companionship, not just the retail value of the pet.
But for some animal-rights advocates such gains are trivial in the context of the much greater cruelty inflicted on animals every day.
Gary Francione, a law professor at Rutgers University Law School in Newark, N.J., who started the Animal Rights Law Project, dismisses most of those signs of "progress" as distractions from real cruelty.