Animal Sidekicks, Part One

Today’s post, which is the first in a series, was inspired by Christopher, who wanted to know about animal sidekicks (e.g. Zabu, Krypto, Lockheed), particularly Red Wolf’s wolf companion Lobo.  There are a lot of potential issues here, but we’re going to focus on three major ones: animal cruelty, liability for the animal’s acts, and animal regulations (e.g. leash laws and import regulations).

I. Animal Cruelty Laws

Similar to juvenile sidekicks and child endangerment laws, one possible issue with having an animal sidekick is that it might constitute animal cruelty.  After all, the animals are placed in dangerous situations and some are even asked to attack people, albeit usually villainous people.  But if Krypto takes a bite out of Brainiac, is that really enough to make Superman into Michael Vick?

For the most part animal cruelty laws are state-based.  There is a federal law criminalizing depictions of acts of animal cruelty and another federal law dealing with housing animals for exhibition or sale, but those aren’t really the issue here (and in case you were wondering, comic books depicting villains being cruel to animals don’t run afoul of the statute; the depictions must be of actual, real-world acts of animal cruelty).  Since cruelty laws vary from state to state, this will mostly be a general overview of their common features and principles.

II. The Scope of the Law

An immediate question is: do these sidekicks even qualify as “animals” for purposes of the statutes?  Lobo is a fairly ordinary wolf, but some versions of Krypto are super-powered, super-intelligent, or both, and Lockheed is a dragon for crying out loud.

As it turns out, most animal cruelty statutes are pretty broad. For example, California’s statute encompasses “every dumb creature,” which the California courts have held means “all animals except human beings.”  People v. Baniqued, 85 Cal.App.4th 13, 20-21 (Cal. Ct. App. 2000).  Pretty much every animal sidekick would qualify under that definition, since even the super-intelligent versions of Krypto are “by nature incapable of speech like that of human beings” and so would qualify as “dumb” for purposes of the statute.

Some statutes are a little narrower, however.  For example, Missouri’s only applies to “every living vertebrate except a human being,” and many states, such as Arkansas, go one step further and exempt fish. Mo. Rev. Stat. 578.005; Ark. Code § 5-62-102(2).  Both statutes would exempt Legion of Super-Pets member Proty II, which, as a shapeless mass of protoplasm in its native form, would not qualify as a vertebrate.  Interestingly, once Proty eventually learned how to talk he effectively disqualified himself from the protection of the California statute as well.

III. What Counts as Cruelty?

Now that we’ve established that most animal sidekicks would qualify for protection, the focus turns to the superheroes’ conduct.  As with the child endangerment post, we’ll assume none of the superheroes are engaging in obvious cruelty or neglect (e.g. no super-powered animal fighting rings or other deliberate cruelty).  The question is whether bringing animals along for regular superhero activities like investigating and fighting crime constitute animal cruelty.

California’s statute (Cal. Penal Code § 597) is typical and has two primary provisions.  First:

“every person who maliciously and intentionally maims, mutilates, tortures, or wounds a living animal, or maliciously and intentionally kills an animal, is guilty of an offense”

But that certainly wouldn’t apply to our upstanding heroes.  Second

“every person who overdrives, overloads, drives when overloaded, overworks, tortures, torments, deprives of necessary sustenance, drink, or shelter, cruelly beats, mutilates, or cruelly kills any animal… and whoever, having the charge or custody of any animal … subjects any animal to needless suffering, or inflicts unnecessary cruelty upon the animal, or in any manner abuses any animal, or fails to provide the animal with proper food, drink, or shelter or protection from the weather, or who drives, rides, or otherwise uses the animal when unfit for labor, is, for every such offense, guilty of a crime”

That’s a pretty long laundry list, but the overriding theme is one of fairly serious abuse or neglect. We actually had trouble finding cases that didn’t involve revolting or disturbing conduct, so we won’t go into detail here.

In any event, it would be surprising if taking a trained animal sidekick along to fight crime constituted animal cruelty, so long as the animals were otherwise well cared for.  There are three long-standing analogous situations to look to: the private use of dogs and other animals (e.g. llamas, believe it or not) as guard animals, the private use of dogs in hunting, including hunting dangerous prey such as wild boars, and the government use of dogs in potentially dangerous police work. Taken together, these situations encompass many of the same issues and risks as a superhero’s employment of an animal sidekick.

One final issue: at this point in the conversation we’re talking about animals which are either “normal” but highly trained or even start with some kind of superpowers. Whether or not an “uplift” situation would constitute animal cruelty is something we’ll discuss in a post on that subject in general, as there are a number of other issues related to that topic (e.g. is giving an animal enhanced intelligence a kind of animal experimentation?).

IV. Conclusion

Like any responsible animal owner, superheroes should be careful to keep their animal sidekicks healthy and safe, and certainly some missions would be too dangerous for a normal animal.  But superheroes seem to do a good job of caring for their animals, and we don’t think they have to worry about animal control officers knocking on their headquarters any time soon.

21 responses to “Animal Sidekicks, Part One

  1. Proty is a blob in its natural form, but the law that mentions vertebrates doesn’t say anything about natural forms, right? So I’d think that the legal result would be that Proty has protections as long as he has shapeshifted into a vertebrate. For that matter, couldn’t a court just directly say “any creature which is vertebrate even part of the time counts as a vertebrate”?

    • I think the native state is what matters. Further, as I understand it, Proty doesn’t actually have vertebrae when it impersonates, say, a human; it’s just a human-shaped blob of protoplasm. So I don’t think it would count even under the broader definition you suggest.

      • Ken Arromdee

        Why would the native state be what matters? It’s not as if there are any precedents which say “the law about vertebrates only applies to creatures that are vertebrates in their natural state”–it would be a completely new area of law that never came up before because the situation never existed before.

        As for whether he becomes a vertebrate, I don’t see why not. If he becomes a human, his physical structure is obviously sufficient to support a human’s body, and he’d need to have something hard like bones for that.

        (Anyway, Proty existed in the future of the Legion of Super-Heroes. Present-day law may not apply.)

      • This is a good opportunity to talk about how courts interpret statutes (also called statutory construction). “A fundamental canon of statutory construction is that, unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning.” Perrin v. United States, 444 U.S. 37, 42 (1979). This is often determined by referring to a dictionary written at about the same time as the statute was enacted. I don’t think the definition of “vertebrate” has changed much in the past 20-30 years or so, so I’ll use a modern dictionary. In the Oxford American Dictionary, “vertebrate” is defined as “an animal of a large group distinguished by the possession of a backbone or spinal column, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fishes. Subphylum Vertebrata.”

        I’m not a biologist, but it seems highly unlikely that Proteans would be classified within Vertebrata. For one thing, they are plainly unrelated genetically. And I’ll again refer to the native form, since that seems biologically important. Consider the mimic octopus, probably the closest real-world equivalent to a shape-shifter. Sure, it can mimic all kinds of creatures, including ones with vertebrae, but it’s still an invertebrate octopus.

        Is this fair or right? Should Proty be protected by animal cruelty laws or even given full personhood as an arguably sentient being? Maybe so, but this is an exercise in applying the law as it is, not arguing for what the law ought to be.

      • Ken Arromdee

        But why wouldn’t a court say this? “Obviously the people who wrote that definition never even heard of anything slightly like Proty. Therefore we cannot just see if Proty fits the definition they wrote down, we have to figure out what definition they would have come up with *if* they have heard of Proty.”

        The Century Dictionary (from 1889) defines the press (in the context of “liberty of the press”) as “the art of printing; hence, those who are engaged in printing or publishing”. Freedom of the press still applies to radio and television.

      • Actually, the cases dealing with new media like radio, television, and the internet generally cast the issue in terms of freedom of speech rather than freedom of the press.

        But further, you’ll note I was discussing statutory construction. There are different rules for the Constitution, partly because of its fundamental importance, partly because it’s very difficult to amend (so the courts tend to err on the side of broad rights), and partly because it’s so dang vague. “The language of the First Amendment is to be read not as barren words found in a dictionary but as symbols of historic experience illumined by the presuppositions of those who employed them.” Dennis v. United States, 341 U. S. 494, 523 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

        But there are other reasons to think a court would adopt a narrow definition of “animal.” First, it’s explicitly defined in the statute. Second, it’s defined both by what it is (vertebrates) and what it is not (humans and in some statutes fish). That greatly constrains the court’s ability to add or subtract from the definition. If the legislature wanted to allow for as-yet undiscovered varieties of animal, then it could have done so. If it wanted to use a more flexible test that referred to cognitive ability, it could have done so. Consider that by limiting protection to vertebrates the statutes already exclude cephalopods, many species of which are quite intelligent.

        Again, this result may seem unfair or unjust, but a court will usually say something like “if this is wrong then the legislature is free to amend the law.”

  2. Captain America’s buddy Falcon in turn has an animal partner, Redwing: a large, actual, falcon. One source claims Redwing is an “American Kestral” — a relatively small bird compared to the artwork portraying a Bald Eagle sized-bird. It matters, because while Kestrals are (kind of like ferrets) allowed to ordinary persons as “pets” many large hawks and eagles are protected species. Others are not native to North America and might run afoul of animal control/import regulations.

    From a LEGAL perspective, assuming New York law (since the Avengers are based in NYC), and assuming Falcon obeys the law, what kind of bird can Redwing NOT be? (We can, should, and must, allow other forums to discuss clues about size, color, or the shape of beak and talons.)

    • Funny thing about New York law–I don’t know the details and am not a lawyer at all, but it appears from many news reports over the years that, while it’s illegal to own an exotic animal (and I’m pretty sure the distinction IS exotic to the area), people who turn up with tigers and alligators are forced to get a license and everybody goes home happy unless there’s an obvious danger.

      I’m thinking particularly (can’t find a link, sorry) of a Manhattan trend to some exotic-bred cat that became popular. They were (and still are) illegal to acquire, but assuming you’ve “somehow” done so, they’re legal to own as long as they’re licensed. Stupid? Probably. But it probably means that Redwing won’t pose too much of a problem.

  3. The larger issue is that many of these pets are intelligent beings. Proty is, for example, and Krypto’s elaborate interior monologues, and understanding of Morse code, and gum chewing all suggest that he is as well. And what about Supergirl’s horse? Isn’t he actually a person?

    • Some versions of Krypto are super-intelligent, but in some versions he has the intelligence of a normal dog.

      This series is really more about animal sidekicks with more-or-less normal animal intelligence (the example of Proty notwithstanding). There is a series of posts on non-human intelligences, though.

    • Sentient animals in comics are tricky because it’s a general comic thing to treat *all* animals as having human-like intelligence, whether super-animals or Garfield.

      Personally, I would interpret any sentient animal story in comics to be “these animals are not sentient, it’s just being shown as words and intelligence to make the story more relatable to the human readers”. And if that doesn’t work, I’d still say “okay, these animals are sentient, but keeping them is not slavery–this is impossible, but then knocking out hundreds of criminals without even one concussion is impossible too. You just have to accept it as a premise of the genre.” Otherwise you end up claiming that Charlie Brown keeps Snoopy as a slave.

      In the specific case of Proty, it was established that Proty is genuinely sentient, but implied that Proteans are not naturally sentient but that imitating sentient beings lets them become sentient.

  4. I have a question about Aquaman my favorite underwater themed hero. When Aquaman uses telepathy to control wild sea creatures (speaking of course of the classic incarnation of Aquaman). At that point the animals certainly wouldn’t constitute specially trained animals like your examples of super-pets and police or rescue dogs. Furthermore the animals are being psychically coerced into performing whatever task Aquaman needs done. Often times they will act as canon fodder and fleshy shields!

    I think that from a legal perspective this qualifies as “… otherwise uses the animal when unfit for labor…” because I can’t imagine any case when dolphins are fit to attack Black Manta,

    • That’s a good point. As you say, it does depend on which version of Aquaman you’re talking about, but some of what Aquaman does might be considered animal cruelty, but on the other hand, many states specifically exempt fish and invertebrates like octopuses from their animal cruelty laws. What’s more, though, Aquaman usually does his thing in the ocean, which is generally outside state law jurisdiction and, if he goes far enough out, outside of federal jurisdiction as well. But if he’s in federal jurisdiction there are two laws that might apply.

      First, marine mammals (e.g. dolphins) are protected by a specific and fairly stringent federal law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which criminalizes, among other things, harassment of marine mammals. Harassment in turn means “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance” which has the potential for injury or disrupting behavior patterns. So I guess it depends on whether the dolphins feel tormented or annoyed by Aquaman’s actions. Unfortunately, it might be a bit hard to find someone else with the ability to speak to sea creatures to answer that question!

      Second, there’s the Endangered Species Act, which has fairly similar coverage as the MMPA except it applies to endangered species. But I don’t recall off hand if Aquaman makes regular use of any endangered species, so that might not be an issue.

      • Christopher A.

        Aquaman’s case is interesting to think about. From what I remember of the Superfriends-era cartoons (my source of Aquaman knowledge), he was always said to be sending out a telepathic “summons” to his many friends among the sea creatures. The implication was that they were glad to help Aquaman, who was their rightful king. Which all sounds great. But if I were inclined to prosecute him for abusing the animals, I would try to demonstrate that this talk is either self-serving or delusional, that the claim that animals can somehow be his subjects is without rational merit, that when he uses his telepathic powers the animals act in a completely unnatural and self-destructive way, and that the only conclusion that a rational outside observer could make is that he is coercing the marine creatures into performing extremely dangerous acts solely for Aquaman’s benefit.

        Aquaman would probably think my claims are those of an overly materialistic city-dweller with no comprehension of the true relationship between man and nature. I wonder if Aquaman could refute my claims by calling as expert witnesses those few other superheroes who are “in tune with the animal kingdom.” I suspect they all have the same opinion, that there is nothing strange about nature wanting to aid someone who is in touch with it.

  5. As for Lockheed, he’s actually a sentient alien who doesn’t communicate in a verbal fashion (except for the occasional “pfui”). So I’m not sure he’d fall under the animal sidekick category.

    From Ch. 3 of my tie-in novel X-Men: Watchers on the Walls (Pocket Star Books, 2006):

    “How much paperwork would be involved in getting a pet license for a creature of unknown species that wasn’t even native to the planet? Besides which, Lockheed would take umbrage at being called her pet; if anything, he saw their relationship the other way around, and she often strongly suspected he was right. He might not speak, but there was no question of the little guy’s intelligence. Kitty had sometimes considered trying to get him diplomatic immunity in lieu of a pet license, but the United States had no diplomatic relations with Broodworld, thanks partly to its total existence failure some years back. And Lockheed might be many things, but diplomatic was rarely one of them.”

    • Given the uncertainty surrounding whether sentient aliens would be legally regarded as people, the fallback is that he would be considered an animal. But yes, normal animal sidekicks like Lobo are the best examples for this area of the law.

  6. What about Angel and the Ape? (Sam Simian is from Gorilla City, via a punster.) In that relationship, which is the sidekick?

  7. Let’s delve a little more into something a little more Aquaman related. We forget that some animals are psychically linked to his human so they can and do communicate with each other, such as it was between Falcon and Redwing.
    One other question, how about animals that are familiars? These are animals that are representative of their human master and thus are able to, again, communicate with their human.

  8. Pingback: Law and the Multiverse: Animal Sidekicks | Batpig & Me

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