As some states pare back human rights, California considers dog rights

California is now one step closer to a “Dog and Cat Bill of Rights” that would declare dogs and cats “sentient beings” by law. This week, on May 25, 2022, Assembly Bill (AB) 1881 passed the Assembly floor. Next the California Senate will vote on the bill, and if it passes it will be sent to the Governor, who has veto power.

The bill was introduced by Assemblymember Miguel Santiago in February and sponsored by Social Compassion in Legislation, an animal advocacy group. The bill requires animal shelters, humane societies, and rescue groups to post notices listing seven basic needs of dogs and cats or else receive a fine.

Speaking by phone this Thursday, Assemblymember Santiago, who has two dogs, told The Canine Review he introduced the bill because of the increase in pet adoptions during the pandemic. “Sometimes people took on a larger responsibility than they thought,” he said, adding that he wanted to ensure that owners were properly educated about the responsibilities involved in pet ownership.

“It shouldn’t be breaking news to somebody that you shouldn’t be cruel to your pet. It shouldn’t be breaking news that they need appropriate exercise or that they need clean water but it is for some. And that’s why we do this,” Santiago says.

When the bill was first proposed, these guidelines listed seven dog and cat “rights,” including “dogs and cats have the right to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse,” “dogs and cats have the right to a life of comfort, free of fear and anxiety” and “dogs and cats have the right to mental stimulation and appropriate exercise considering the age and energy level of the dog or cat” and others.

This language concerned organizations like the American Kennel Club, the California Veterinary Medical Association and the Animal Health Institute, the three organizations of which issued a joint statement voicing their concerns to the Assemblymember on April 11th. In the letter, they argued that the bill would “​​undermine the rights of dog and cat owners to make appropriate health care decisions and take the best possible care for their beloved pets.”

“Is California’s Dog and Cat Bill of Rights a Trojan Horse?” attorney Michelle Pardo wrote in a March 2022 blog post on her firm’s website in March 2022.

As far as legislative muscle goes, on its face, the passive posting of a list of animal care responsibilities seems relatively inconsequential.  It imposes no liabilities on pet owners who fail to comply with the pets’ fundamental rights.  A duty to “post” does not guarantee that any adoptive owner would even read the sign.  The bill also states that it would “not create or imply a private right of action for a violation of this division.”   The casual reader may be left wondering: what exactly is the point of this legislation and why is the sponsoring animal activist organization viewing this as a great legislative victory?

The answer may lie in two familiar activist legal strategies: California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§17200 et seq., and the movement to seek legal status for nonhuman animals.

California’s UCL (often paired with its False Advertising Law (FAL) and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA)) is a powerful tool to turn any violation of any law or regulation, federal or state, into the basis of an “unlawful” UCL claim, provided that the violation of the underlying law or regulation is in connection with a business act or practice.  If the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights becomes law, theoretically a violation of the law – if an aggrieved person or organization can prove standing and economic injury – could be the vehicle by which an animal activist or organization could litigate the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights in court.  The fact that the Legislature did not intend to provide a private right of action would not prevent it serving as the foundation for a UCL “unlawful” claim.

For example, if your cat activist neighbor thought you were not providing your cat with the “daily mental stimulation” that the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights required, and spent money buying USB sticks to save videos of your cat and use in an anti-cat ownership campaign, you may find yourself in court as a defendant of a UCL claim.  One could imagine an organization that advocates for mandatory spay and neuter laws targeting owners that let their pets have “unwanted litters” bringing a lawsuit to recover for expenses spent on tasks that frustrated their mission.  All of these are scenarios that the expansive UCL could encompass if the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights becomes law.

But it is codifying dogs and cats as “sentient beings” that likely is the reason why animal activist groups are celebrating this legislation.  For years, a movement of animal activists have advocated, through a variety of unsuccessful lawsuits, that animals in this country should have the same legal and constitutional rights as humans.  (We’ve blogged about these efforts: click hereherehere, and here).  While these cases have been unsuccessful in getting a court to recognize this to date, the press for any legislative body to enact something to this effect is growing.  If the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights becomes law, it may well be the Trojan Horse – delivering a victory that advocates for nonhuman rights have been waiting for.

Offering a different perspective, self-described animal rights “advocate” Judie Manusco counts People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) among her peers and is the founder and president of Social Compassion in Legislation, one of the organizations credited with the bill’s genesis. Manusco told TCR that much of this pushback came from a desire to “to keep the animals as property” in order to “exploit them.”

In response to concerns, Santiago amended the language of the bill. Rather than stating that “dogs and cats have the right,” the bill now lists what dogs and cats “deserve.” For example, the current bill says that “dogs and cats deserve to be free from exploitation, cruelty, neglect and abuse” and “dogs and cats deserve a life of comfort, free of fear and anxiety.” Additionally, the words “guardian” and “companion animal” were removed from the bill as requested by the AKC.

In its current amended version according to Ron Phillips of the Animal Health Institute, the AHI’s position is now neutral, saying “we do not have a position on the amended bill.”

“While AKC did not get every amendment we requested, we are grateful to the author for agreeing to this compromise and addressing our primary and most significant concerns,” the AKC’s Government Relations arm wrote in a statement — headlined “AB 1881 Sponsor Agrees to Remove Animal ‘Rights’ from ‘Bill of Rights ‘” — on April 25, 2022.

The current bill specifies that it is not intended to provide the basis for enforcement, criminal, or civil action apart from penalizing organizations that do not post the required notices.

 “This division does not create or imply a private right of action for a violation of this division.  It is the intent of the Legislature that the Dog and Cat Bill of Rights notice set forth in Section 31802 31800 is solely to inform potential owners of the standards for basic physical care and emotional well-being of dogs and cats.

(b) This division does not create a crime or a penalty other than the penalty provided in Section 31802 regarding posting requirements for educational purposes.

Not all animal rights-based language has been removed from the bill,  however. The language still describes dogs and cats as having “the right to be respected as sentient beings that experience complex feelings that are common among living animals while being unique to each individual animal.”