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Can animals sue in court?

July 19, 2008 |  2:25 pm

The new question might be: Can they sue?

Animal law classes are the hot new offering at Canadian law schools. The University of Toronto and Queen's University will start teaching animal law this fall, joining at least six other Canadian universities where dogs and cats are already on the curriculum.

Before you reel at the notion of Rover retaining a lawyer to petition for 10 walks a day or the fish suing the cat for harassment, fear not. It's a serious field of study; even in the U.S., where animal law is more developed and lawsuits are much easier to pursue, courts have not been overrun by frivolous Fido filings.

Some experts compare animal law today to environmental law in the 1970s -- just emerging from its reputation as a special-interest niche (with a tinge of left-wing loony) to become a solid discipline that is widely accepted and potentially lucrative for practitioners.

The concept of animal law is almost as broad as that of "people law," encompassing everything from veterinary malpractice and custody cases (when couples split, who gets the pets?) to more philosophical issues of animal rights and personhood.

Many of these issues are hypothetical right now in Canada. Despite recent efforts to change the law, animals are still legally property in Canada, and the courts have been reluctant to humour would-be petitioners who view their pets like furry children....

But there have been signs of change. In 2006, Ontario courts awarded emotional damages for the loss of a dog; a boarding kennel that lost a dog while its owners were vacationing in Hawaii was ordered to pay the couple $1,417.12 for pain and suffering.

Photo: Rene Macura / Animal Planet

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