A vacation that ended with the death of his dog started Seminole veterinarian Kenneth Newman on an unusual quest.
Newman wants to change laws so pets are recognized as family members, not property.
In most states, someone who deliberately or negligently kills a pet has to pay only for the cost of the animal, as if it were a chair or other inanimate possession. Newman wants the wrongdoer also to pay damages for loss of companionship and the sentimental value of the animal.
It's a hard sell.
Newman talked with 52 literary agents about publishing a book he wrote, Meet Me at the Rainbow Bridge, which describes the impact that pets, particularly dogs, have had on his life. The book explains the loss of Gracie, a Labrador retriever killed when a driver backed into him and Gracie while they were out for a walk. The book also advocates for the creation of his proposed statute, Gracie's Law.
No agents were interested, so he self-published the book.
He sent news releases to 50 to 75 news organizations, from newspapers, news magazines and news-based talk shows like Today to more entertainment-oriented talk shows like the Tonight Show and David Letterman.
"I went right down the list of all the big ones. … I've contacted Oprah I don't know how many times. She's avoided this subject," Newman said. "It just didn't go anywhere. I might not have been persistent enough."
He spent $5,000 on a publicist. Most recently, he called members of the Pinellas County legislative delegation hoping someone would sponsor his bill.
He got no takers.
While there have been some bright spots, an interview or guest column here and there, Newman for the most part has been living his version of Don Quixote's quest.
"I was looking at the world through rose-colored glasses (thinking) everybody is going to be interested in this," Newman said. Many tell him, "you had a loss. We don't care. Get over it."
"Unless it happens to you, you don't see the point," he said.
Newman got the point in April 2008 while on a vacation with his wife and Gracie. They stopped to pick up some molasses for his mother-in-law. While his wife, Heidi, was shopping, he took Gracie for a walk. As they walked back to the car, a woman backed into them, crushing Newman and Gracie between her car and his.
Mrs. Newman rushed the dog to a nearby vet while her husband lay on the ground waiting for an ambulance. Gracie made it to the vet alive but could not be saved. She was euthanized.
"Her last act was, she curled around and put her head on my shoulder," Newman said.
Newman sued, only to learn that Gracie was considered property. As such, he could only collect what she had cost him — $800. Newman got about $50,000 for his own injuries, pain and suffering.
His proposed Gracie's Law would allow pet owners to collect the cost of the animal and up to $25,000 for the emotional loss.
His proposal isn't as far out as it might sound. At least two states, Tennessee and Illinois, have similar laws, said Peter Fitzgerald, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. Some courts have allowed such damages, although they've been overruled on appeal.
Fitzgerald, a specialist in domestic and international commercial law and policy as well as an expert on animal law, said there is a growing animal law movement. Gracie's Law is on the conservative side, he said, because it focuses on "harm to owner as opposed to pain and suffering an animal might feel."
Opposition abounds to laws like the one Newman proposes. Some comes from veterinary associations and companies that manufacture and sell pet products, Newman said. The Florida and American Veterinary Medical associations could not be reached for comment.
Newman said he finds that opposition hypocritical. Vets and pet product companies make billions by promoting the animal-human bond, he said. Yet when it comes to compensating someone for the loss of that bond, those same people want to reduce the pet to the status of a chair, he said.
Despite the opposition and the closed doors, Newman said he plans to persist in his quest, which boils down to setting "the legal value, basically, of unconditional love" that animals give humans.