Miles Kington Remembered: Why the care of small animals can be a legal minefield

24 October 1996
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The Independent Online

Today I am devoting the whole of this space to the care and maintenance of small household pets. I know nothing about the care and maintenance of small household pets, so I have had to hire the services of an expert. Sadly, at short notice I was not able to hire an expert on household pets, but I am very glad to have secured the services of a top lawyer, Mr J Millington Smythe. All yours, Mr Smythe!

How often should a budgerigar's cage be cleaned?

J Millington Smythe writes: You are not contractually obliged to clean your budgerigar's cage at all, of course, unless you signed a contract when you acquired your bird from the pet shop. I very much hope you did not do this, as people have sometimes been caught in long-term and crippling arrangements with pet shops.

I had a client once who signed an agreement with a pet shop which committed her not only to cleaning her bird's cage every day, but also to entering a time-share arrangement over a villa in Spain and taking out a very expensive life insurance policy.

On herself?

J Millington Smythe writes: No, on the bird.

Did you manage to extricate her from this crippling contract?

J Millington Smythe writes: The outcome was very satisfactory.

What does that mean?

J Millington Smythe writes: It means that my client is going to spend the rest of her life paying off my fees.

So, how often should a budgerigar's cage be cleaned?

J Millington Smythe writes: I find the best arrangement is to train the bird to clean its own cage. Alternatively, you can stand in front of the bird's cage and declare three times: "I pronounce this cage well and truly cleaned!"

Whenever I clean my budgie's cage, she picks up a little sunflower seed or other delicacy after it is all over and hands it to me, as if to say thank you! Isn't that sweet?

J Millington Smythe writes: No. It is a highly dangerous precedent. By accepting payment from your pet, you are in effect entering into an unspoken agreement, de facto rather than de jure, which commits you to repeating the service on a regular basis.

You could therefore, and I do not exaggerate, be sued for neglect if you do not keep up the regular cleaning of the cage, and the sunflower seed would be cited as an example of the payment changing hands.

Or, in her case, claws. By accepting the sunflower seed you are tacitly admitting liability.

But who would sue the owner?

J Millington Smythe writes: The bird, of course.

How can a bird sue an owner?

J Millington Smythe writes: He need only get in touch with me and I can do the rest.

Has a bird ever successfully sued an owner?

J Millington Smythe writes: Oh, yes. I need only draw your attention to the classic case of Pal Joey vs Mrs Templeton, in 1958, in which Mrs Templeton was taken to the cleaners by a law firm acting for her budgie.

What was the outcome of the case?

J Millington Smythe writes: The lawyer won, of course. And the next, please!

I recently bought a dog for the first time and am wondering what information I should put on the brass tag on his collar, such as name, address etc, as there isn't a lot of room.

J Millington Smythe writes: Don't, whatever you do, put the dog's name on. This will give any kidnapper a great advantage, as he will be able to call the dog by his name and get his trust. Do not put your own phone number on it, as then the kidnapper will find it all too easy to ring you up and make his demands. Do not give your address, as burglars often read these and then burgle the house when the watch dog is all too clearly absent.

What shall I put on, then?

J Millington Smythe writes: Ideally, nothing. If you must put something, write the name and telephone number of the dog's solicitor.

J Millington Smythe will be back soon to deal with your inquiries about skiing and winter sports. Keep those queries rolling in!