Should Abused Animals Be Able To Sue?

Early 2017, an 8-year-old horse named Shadow was rescued from an Oregon ranch, covered in lice, frostbite and nearly 300 pounds underweight. At first, it seemed like an open-and-shut case of animal abuse, especially after his owner pled guilty to animal neglect, agreed to community service and paid $3,700 in fines.

However, in this case, the nature of the animal’s abuse, which were so horrific his frostbitten genitals would require reconstructive surgery, inspired the Animal Legal Defense Fund to get involved.

Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund

Arguing that the animal’s abuse would lead to a lifetime of medical treatment, the advocacy group took the unique step of suing his former owner, Gwendolyn Vercher, for $100,000 on behalf of the injured horse, who was aptly renamed Justice.

Strange as it sounds, Justice isn’t the first animal to attempt to right past wrongs via legal channels – in 2004, environmentalists sued George W. Bush on behalf of whales affected by naval sonar. More recently, a monkey who borrowed a camera to take a series of photos accused, with PETA’s help, their eventual publisher with copyright infringement.

Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund

Unfortunately, neither of these cases managed to hold up in the court room, and Justice’s case wasn’t any exception.

“There are profound implications of a judicial finding that a horse, or any non-human animal for that matter, is a legal entity that has the legal right to assert a claim in a court of law,” the judge decided, noting that finding for abused animals would lead to a “flood” of related lawsuits.

Regardless, ADLF has vowed to appeal, especially because the case is being tried at Oregon’s relatively progressive state level, which has previously upheld animals’ statutory rights.

Photo: Animal Legal Defense Fund

“We’re disappointed with today’s decision dismissing Justice’s case, but we anticipated this case would ultimately be decided by the appellate courts,” ADLF lawyer Matthew Liebman wrote to Portland’s Mercury newspaper.

“We’re excited to take our case to the Oregon Court of Appeals, and we’re optimistic they’ll agree that animals have the right to sue their abusers when they’re the victims of cruelty,” he wrote.

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J. Swanson is a writer, traveler, and animal-enthusiast based in Seattle, an appropriately pet-crazed city where dog or cat ownership even outweighs the number of kids. When the weather permits, she likes to get outside and explore the rest of the Pacific Northwest, always with a coffee in hand.
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