August 2014 - Deciding Between Comfort Animals and Comfort Food

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

Edward O. Wilson is a biologist. A very perceptive biologist. He sums up the human condition this way, “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”1

No one who has spent even five minutes marveling at Facebook posts or deciphering Twitter feeds or counseling someone whose Instagram has come back to haunt him can doubt the accuracy of that observation.

And it occurs to me that there are few areas of human endeavor in which its application seems more ubiquitous than our relationships with animals. Especially when we try to write laws and regulations dealing with animals.

We love animals. But it’s a problematic usage of the word “love.”

We love animals as much as you can love something you may—at any moment—decide to eat. In this case, the word “love” describes a weird hybrid of the way you feel about Grandma and the way you feel about a French Dip sandwich.

I love my cats, but I shoo them away when they want to climb on the kitchen table or snuggle on a hot evening. I loved my guinea pig, but I kept him in a small wire cage for most of his life. I love meerkats, but if my neighbor announced a desire to set up a colony of them in his back yard, I would immediately contact the city council.

I would personally pick up a weapon to defend the last giraffes on the planet. But I will trap a mouse without hesitation or qualm.

What is the opposite of unconditional love? That’s how we feel about animals.

All of this comes to mind because a reader sent me a clipping from The Week magazine that says, “the federal government proposed new guidelines that would allow disabled people to board airplanes with unusual ‘service’ animals to provide comfort, including pigs, miniature horses, and monkeys.”

Yep, that’s what it said. The extra $12.50 you paid Southwest Airlines to get space A16 in the boarding line is going to get you seated between a rhesus monkey and a pot-bellied pig.2

A classic case of medieval institutions trying to adapt Paleolithic feelings about animals to god-like technology. Or, since I can already hear the quibbling,3 a something-less-than-classic instance of modern incarnations of medieval institutions (i.e., federal regulatory agencies) trying to adapt slightly post-Paleolithic emotions to bird-like technology. Cut me some slack here, people, this is a part-time gig.

And we’ve been trying—with only mixed success—to pull off this Cirque du Soleil-level feat of legislative acrobatics for decades. In 1949, shortly before I turned two, the Illinois legislature passed “An Act to Provide Protection to Insectivorous Birds by Restraining Cats.”

Honest. The state of Illinois, through its elected representatives, had come to the conclusion it needed to leash cats to keep them from eating robins and sparrows and such. After debate and prayerful consideration,4 the people entrusted by their peers with the governance of the state decided leashing cats was not only a good idea, but an idea so good it needed the force of law behind it to ensure it was employed.

It would have been the law of Illinois had Adlai Stevenson not vetoed it. As the future recidivist presidential candidate explained in his veto message, “To escort a cat abroad on a leash is against the nature of the cat.”

I own cats. They aren’t like dogs. Dogs have a conscience. Dogs care about what others think about them. The word “psychotic” is not the most common adjective used to describe dogs.

Cats, on the other hand, are like Castro’s troops in 1956, lying low in the hill country waiting for the chance to overthrow their human oppressors. Trying to leash a cat is the surest way I can think of to develop an intimate understanding of the suturing process.

You wanna meet an emergency room doctor? Forget singles bars; just put a leash on your cat and take him for a walk.

Had Governor Stevenson been more familiar with cats, I’m convinced his veto message would have been more along the lines of, “What are you, crazy? Leash cats!? Get a grip, people.”

And yet we keep trying. Just a couple of years ago the town of Barre, Vermont, considered a law similar to the one Stevenson vetoed. The whole town5 was up in arms. It was quite the cause célèbre.6

Until someone pointed out they already had such a law. Seems the town already had an ordinance that said, “No owner or keeper of an animal shall allow his, their, or its7 animal to run at large.” The ordinance further defined animal as “every living being not human or plant.”8

So cats were already required to be leashed. Also cows.

If you ever get to Barre, Vermont, let me know how that’s working out for them.

So the “medieval institutions” of state and local government have struggled mightily with our conflicted animal emotions. But only a federal regulatory agency could look around and say, “You know, we’ve been too restrictive of animals on airplanes. We need more monkeys and pigs and miniature horses on board.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m generally in favor of regulatory agencies. I’m pretty much a fan of zoning laws and administrative codes and federal regulations and all the other horrendous invasions of our liberty that keep buildings from falling down on us and pre-Paleolithic restaurant owners from feeding us pets.

But I’m also in favor of line-drawing, and this seems like it might be a good place for that.

I’ve flown with a couple of service dogs. I think I flew with a “comfort animal” once.9 I didn’t detect any problems.10

But I might feel differently about a miniature horse or a pig. Or a monkey. Call me hidebound, but I really think putting pigs and monkeys in the exit row is just asking for trouble.

And as for miniature horses, well ... I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but horses can’t sit. Anywhere.

And as much as society seems to me to be deteriorating all around us,11 I think the need for comfort animals is going to grow geometrically. Malthus may yet turn out to have been right about worldwide famine: We may not be able to eat enough animals to nourish us because we need so many of them to calm us down.

So I’ll wait with the rest of you—with collectively bated breath—to see how our medieval institutions handle this conflict between our space-age emotional needs and our Paleolithic sense that pigs should not get the window seat. I’ll watch the intertubes for word on how our government resolves the his-comfort-monkey-just-threw-feces-on-my-baby conundrum.

Go ahead, Feds, show Doctor Wilson how it’s done.


  1. Dr. Wilson is the author of The Social Conquest of Earth (2012). I’ve made a very nice legal career out of quoting erudite people. Figured it might work here as well.
  2. Actually, I’ve done worse.
  3. Writing for an audience of people who spend all their time dismantling analogies is not an easy task.
  4. It was 1949. Legislatures did nothing without prayer. And, judging from Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. ___ (2014), they still don’t.
  5. All 9,000 of them.
  6. Got national TV coverage. That’s what the 24-hour-news cycle has done to us.
  7. “His, theirs, or its. ...” They may only have 9,000 people in Barre, but they have a city attorney who knows how to cover all the bases.
  8. No kidding; the ordinances defined “animal.” I gotta meet the guy who wrote these. He is one careful sonofagun.
  9. It was a parrot. One of the other passengers was freaked out by it so there was much discussion all around me, and in the few moments I took out my earbuds and stopped listening to Leonard Cohen long enough to hear the discussion, the phrase “comfort animal” was bandied about a lot.
  10. Yeah, I know, I didn’t detect the problems in your opponent’s argument the last time you were before me, either. I am—to your mind—not a great problem detector.
  11. The surest sign I’m losing my battle with the aging process: I’m coming to the conclusion our culture is headed to hell in a handbasket. According to federal guidelines, I have been officially “old” since the first time I turned to my wife and said, “We are the Romans.”

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.