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.
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.
"When one considers the whole range of really troubling things we do with nonhuman animals - we selectively pick things out and focus on them, and the fact that they get focused on really pushes the discussion away from the more pervasive problems," he says. Professor Francione considers the anticruelty laws - which tend to exclude any suffering that complies with "industry standards" - virtually useless, since they rule out cruelty to animals raised for food or used in experiments.
Even with cats and dogs, the examples of positive trends may not mean much, he says. The felony upgrade makes some police and prosecutors even more reluctant to press charges, and the emotional- anguish awards are no different, in his view, from recognizing that a worthless family heirloom has emotional value. "It doesn't mean you're not looking at pets as property," he says.
As for Hammer's lawsuit about tail-docking, Francione considers the whole thing a bit absurd. "You have this process of dogs being bred and shown - a formalized exploitation of dogs, and a real problem where, when dogs don't meet expectations, they get sent to rescue leagues or killed. And here's this guy saying, 'I don't want to dock the tail because I think that's cruelty?'.... I've got news for you: This whole thing you're participating in is directly and indirectly cruel to dogs."
But for those in the purebred dog world, keeping - or outlawing - such practices is a major issue. Tail-docking and ear-clipping are already illegal in most European countries, including Britain.
The AKC accepts the guidelines of official breed groups, many of which see themselves as historical gatekeepers. "A lot of these parent [breed] clubs look at themselves [as] protecting the history and parentage of the breed," explains Lainie Cantrell of the AKC.
Ruling in favor of Hammer would call into question the standards of the other 145 breed clubs in the US, ABC attorney Debra Resnick told Reuters. "It would be like making declawing a cat an act of cruelty," she said.
Well, yes. And de-barking dogs, and removing dogs' dewclaws. There's already a bill pending in California to ban cat declawing, says Teri Barnato, director of the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights in Davis, Calif. A bill to ban ear-clipping is in the works. But even while such practices are still legal, Ms. Barnato is encouraged by the number of vets who are starting to take a stand on their own. In one recent survey of California vets, only 10 percent said they will clip ears, and 56 percent support legislation to ban it.
Ear-clipping and tail-docking "have been passed down through the ages by breed clubs who don't want to change those standards, regardless of the fact that people are aware they're painful procedures, not medically necessary, and done only because people like that continuing look of the dog," says Barnato. "But I think people are starting to be more sensitive to the needs of other living beings."