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Originally published March 22, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 22, 2007 at 2:31 PM

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When a pet dies of suspected food poisoning — what is its value?

To Tom and Trena Whaley, of Ontario, Ore., Samoya was family. Her death March 8 left the Whaleys grieving the feline's bossy-yet-playful...

Seattle Times staff reporter

To Tom and Trena Whaley, of Ontario, Ore., Samoya was family. Her death March 8 left the Whaleys grieving the feline's bossy-yet-playful nature and her love of naps and chicken.

But no matter how sad or untimely her death, Samoya, a Siamese cat, may be worth no more than what is called "replacement value."

The growing legal debate about the definition of a pet — family, or property? — is likely to be at the heart of a federal class-action lawsuit filed in Seattle this week against the Canadian manufacturer that recalled 60 million cans and pouches of "cuts and gravy" pet food last week. At least 14 pets, including Samoya, have died, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

Seattle attorney Michael Myers believes he is the first lawyer to file a class-action against Menu Foods, although other individual lawsuits are being filed around the country. In the suit, the Whaleys, the only named plaintiffs, claim emotional damage as well as economic loss.

Myers said Washington's strong consumer-protection laws and judges sympathetic to the burgeoning field of animal law make this a good state to try the case. But he acknowledged that putting a value on a lost pet will be a challenge.

"There is a hurdle you have to clear to argue you have suffered damages that aren't normally monetized," said Myers.

Sam Bornstein, a spokesman for Menu Foods, said anecdotal evidence suggests pets died after eating the company's pet food, although scientific testing is still ongoing. He said the company had not yet seen the lawsuit.

Menu Foods recall


For information: Visit Menu Foods' website, www.menufoods.com, for a list of recalled products. To contact the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, call 888-INFO-FDA.

"Our hearts go out to the many pet owners across Canada and the U.S. for their losses and their worry," he said. "We are grateful to them for their patience as we hunt for the root of the problem."

Pet deaths have been traditionally treated as property, "like the loss of a chair," said Paul Waldau, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University.

But with the number of households with pets now outnumbering those with children nationwide, he said animal law is rapidly evolving.

"Ninety-five percent of people will say that their pet is a family member, and treated as a who rather than a what, and will expect the legal system to treat it as a loved one, rather than a thing," said Waldau.

Some states, including Tennessee, have passed laws defining the value of a pet. But in those without, courts have begun setting standards.

In 2006, a jury in Oregon awarded a family whose dog, Grizz, was intentionally run over by a neighbor, $50,000 in punitive damages and $6,000 for emotional distress. Grizz was valued at $400.

Adam Karp, a Bellingham attorney who specializes in animal law, said courts in Washington are beginning to recognize the "intrinsic value" of a pet.

That legal theory, he said, is rooted in a 1976 case in which a family was compensated for 32 rolls of movie film — weddings, vacations and Little League games — that were destroyed during processing.

Karp cited that case during a 2004 lawsuit against the owner of two Rottweilers who mauled a Chihuahua named Buddy. He lost, but the appellate ruling led the Court of Appeals in Spokane last year to expand animal law further by creating "malicious injury to a pet" as a source of emotional distress.

Pets, like family heirlooms, hold unique value, said Karp. "You can't just pick up another off the shelf." said.

Samoya was euthanized after her liver began shutting down, leading her to frequently vomit. She was buried near the couple's vegetable garden, beneath a weathervane topped with a cherub.

"She was like family," said Tom Whaley.

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