Companion animals in the U.S. are increasingly regarded as members of the family with whom one may share a strong emotional bond. However, despite an evolving social construction that has elevated their status in the dominant culture, companion animals lack meaningful legal rights, and “family member” is a provisional status that can be dissolved at will based on the discretion of the sole rights-holder in the relationship: the human owner. Because they are still defined within the U.S. legal system as property, it is a common lament within the animal protection movement that the law has not kept pace with the emergent cultural perception of companion animals as family or best friends who may occupy a significant place in one’s constellation of interpersonal relationships. But how divergent are the laws that govern our treatment of companion animals from prevailing social norms? This article examines current trends in animal law and society to shed light on this question. I find that while a new family member cultural status is emerging for companion animals in the U.S., their legal status as property is a countervailing force, enabling contradictory practices and beliefs that construct animals as expendable. The fact that their cultural status is in flux in turn reinforces their status under the law. I conclude with proposed policy reforms that will facilitate the integration of companion animals into society as true rather than rhetorical family members.
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