Expert Voices

Citizen Canines? Pet Legal Status is Evolving (Op-Ed)

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Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is one of the world's pioneering cognitive ethologists, a Guggenheim Fellow, and co-founder with Jane Goodall of Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Bekoff's latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed (New World Library, 2013). This Op-Ed is adapted from one that appeared in Bekoff's column Animal Emotions in Psychology Today. He contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights . 

Cats and dogs used to be wild animals. Today, they are family members and surrogate children. A century ago, pets didn't even warrant the meager legal status of "property." Now, they have more rights and protections than any non-human animals on earth. Some people say, and some worry, that pets are even on the verge of becoming legal persons. How did society get here — and what happens next?

That's what "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs"(PublicAffairs, 2014) is all about. In this fascinating exploration of the changing status of dogs and cats in society, award-winning journalist David Grimm explores the rich and surprising history of our favorite companion animals. (You can read a brief history of cats and dogs on his homepage.)

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As he travels across the country — riding along with Los Angeles detectives as they investigate animal cruelty cases, touring the devastation of New Orleans in search of the orphaned pets following Hurricane Katrina , coming face-to-face with wolves and feral cats, and meeting with me and the inmates in my Roots & Shoots class on animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder, Colo., county jail — Grimm reveals the changing social attitudes that have turned pets (a.k.a., companion animals) into family members, and the remarkable laws and court cases that are elevating them to quasi citizens.

The journey to citizenship isn't a smooth one, however. As Grimm finds, there's plenty of opposition to the rising status of cats and dogs. From scientists and farmers worried that our affection for pets could spill over to livestock and lab rats, to philosophers who say the only way to save society is to wipe cats and dogs from the face of the earth, the battle lines are being drawn. Grimm discusses all sides of the issues and provides readers with enough information so that they can make their own decisions about whether humans should celebrate or condemn the better treatment of cats and dogs.

We are entering a new age of companion animals, one that is fundamentally transforming our relationship with these animals, and reshaping the very fabric of society. Replete with wonderful stories and scientific facts, Citizen Canine is a easy, enjoyable and a must read for all who want to know more about these fascinating beings.

Bekoff's most recent Op-Ed was "Can Evolutionary Biology Reveal What's Kinky?" This article was primarily adapted from the post "Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs" in Psychology Today. Follow all of the Expert Voices issues and debates — and become part of the discussion — on Facebook, Twitter and Google +. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.