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Pets’ rights explored in 'Citizen Canine'

David Grimm discusses our evolving relationship with cats and dogs

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7:30pm, May 31, 2014
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Citizen Canine
David Grimm
PublicAffairs, $26.99

Cats and dogs have become furry little children in the eyes of many Americans. Pet owners call themselves “mom” or “dad.” Some celebrate their animals’ birthdays and spend thousands of dollars on toys, food and veterinary care. Others even risk their lives for pets, as when owners refused to enter shelters that wouldn’t take in animals before Hurricane Katrina.

And now pets appear to be on the path to full citizenship, writes Grimm, a science journalist. “Dogs and cats have reached a critical juncture in their social evolution: As they inch towards personhood, we must decide whether to embrace them as fellow members of society or limit them to being mere pets.”

Grimm spends much of his book tracing the history of dogs and cats from wild animals to humans’ tools and on to beloved pets. This was not an easy path — cats, for instance, may have been heralded as gods in ancient Egypt, but they were also stoned, drowned and burned at the stake as witches’ familiars in medieval times. More recently, owners have struggled for courts to recognize pets as something more than property, as beings with rights of their own.

But it’s unclear exactly how that “more” will take shape. Grimm focuses on rights in America, visiting lawyers, a military base where dogs become soldiers and a farmer who practices “respectful use” of animals. Each situation gives a different view of pets’ futures. Even veterinarians see a downside to the shifting pet-owner relationship: skyrocketing malpractice costs.

Other potential consequences of expanding recognition of animal rights, such as in medical research, get little more than a mention. And the book can get a bit bogged down in legal minutiae. But Grimm does an excellent job of documenting how Fido became family and how that relationship may be changing. Americans may have set pets on the path to citizenship, Grimm notes. But what happens next depends on the choices society makes regarding the animals that have wormed their way into hearts and homes.

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