Vail Law: Of mice, men, dogs, cats and goldfish
John Steinbeck’s classic novel, “Of Mice and Men,” is the story of a mentally disabled man, Lennie, which takes place during the Great Depression. While having little to do with dogs, cats or goldfish, the tale does prominently feature rabbits (including a giant rabbit Lennie dreams about) and a puppy (which, unfortunately, Lennie kills). Beside borrowing the title, the puppy is really the only link to this column. I will mention nary another word about rabbits, giant or otherwise. But let me circle back to that and first pose this question, are your dogs, cats and goldfish really cattle?Well, yes. In a strange, lawspeak sort of way.Dogs are man’s best friend, we are often told, is a dog. Your faithful canine is your comrade, companion and, probably way too often, your closest confidant. But, other than the four legs, a wet nose, and lolling tongue, your and Fido’s friendship is unique in other ways.Talking about friendsA “friend”, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is a person whom one knows, likes and trusts. Short and elegant, isn’t it? You’ll note, however, that exception is not made for associations of the four-legged kind. But a friend, the dictionary tells us, is a “person.” What, then, to make of Fido? By definition alone, your canine pal can’t be your best friend. So Fido, Spot – or your cat or goldfish – must be something else. But what?Well, cattle.Yes, cattle.A law, there are two broad divisions of property: real and personal. “Real property” is immovable. “Personal property” is moveable. The term “real property” connotes land and whatever is erected, growing upon or affixed to it. “Personal” property is everything else you might own. Personal property includes money, goods, “chattels,” things in action and evidences of debt. Money, goods and evidences are familiar and should be largely self-explanatory.Admittedly, “things in action” doesn’t sound like much of a self-respecting legal term. But it is. A “thing in action” is a right to recover money or other personal property by judicial action. A “thing” at law is, by the way, objects of dominion or property as distinguished from a person. Thus, a thing can be controlled or owned. Another, more high-toned name for a “thing in action” is a “chose in action,” a “chose,” being defined at law as a “thing.” There’s a certain pleasing circularity here, don’t you think? In any event, a thing is a chose is a thing and a thing is an object which can be owned or controlled and is not a person. A thing or chose “in action” is something which is something sort of up in the air – there is a right to recover it but the right must be perfected by the exercise of legal proceedings and judicial determination.Whew!What about chattles?”Chattle” is derived of the word “cattle,” and is an article of personal property as opposed to real property. A chattle is, accordingly, property which is personal and moveable. There are a whole passel of chattles, among them “personal chattles” (personal property which has no connection to real estate), “real chattles” (an interest in real estate but not the whole ownership in the real estate itself), “chattle liens” (an interest held in favor of a person by reason of his or her labor, skills or materials), “chattle mortgages” (a pre-Uniform Commercial Code security device) and “chattle paper” (a written instrument which evidences both a monetary obligation and a security interest in a lease or specific goods).But what about cats, dogs and goldfish?Well, except in a very few pockets of enlightenment (or, some might say, bizarreness) cats, dogs, goldfish, gerbils, pot-bellied pigs and any host of critters you call pets, are chattles. Legally, at least (with notable exceptions such as the Republic of Boulder where you are your pet’s “guardian,” thus conferred certain inalienable rights on Fido/Spot), your pets are, sadly, not your friends. They are your property, to be owned, transferred and disposed of as you wish. There are some limitations to the above, like animal cruelty laws. But, setting those limits aside, you can legally thank Fido/Spot for his or her unquestioning devotion, by shuffling him/ her off like a used Honda.What a way to treat a friend!Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business & commercial transactions, real estate & development, homeowner’s associations, family law & divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECO TV18 as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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