The death of a family's beloved canine companion in Vermont has sparked a legal battle over pets' rights and the question of whether they should be recognized family members.

Denis and Sarah Scheele of Annapolis, Md., were moved to push for the courts to give legal recognition to the bond between humans and animals after they lost their "little boy," a mixed-breed adopted dog named Shadow on a family vacation in 2003. Legal recognition would allow people to sue for "loss of companionship" damages when their pets are the victims of animal cruelty.

"Pets give so much to us, unconditionally," Sarah Scheele said. "You can't put a price on that."

Losing Their 'Little Boy'

Unable to have children, the Scheeles treated their two adopted dogs, Shadow and Lucy, like family. They fed the canines people-food, brushed their teeth twice daily and took the dogs everywhere.

It was during a game of hide-and-seek on a family trip to Vermont in July 2003 that tragedy struck. Shadow was shot by a Northfield, Vt., resident with a pellet gun after he ran onto the man's private property. The shot severed an aorta; Shadow died on the way to the hospital.

"Shadow was in my lap in the car, and he always had such sparkly eyes, and all of a sudden I noticed that his eyes weren't sparkling anymore," Sarah Scheele said.

Larry Dustin, the elderly man who shot the dog, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty, and was sentenced to pay almost $4,000 in damages to the Scheeles, as well as undergo counseling and complete community service.

But the Scheeles say the loss of Shadow caused them emotional damages far beyond $4,000.

Hoping to break new legal ground, the couple filed a civil lawsuit seeking monetary damages based on loss of companionship and emotional distress.

But Vermont Superior Court Judge Matthew Katz shot down the case, ruling there was nothing in that state's law that would allow the Scheeles to seek damages based on those losses. The couple plans to appeal the ruling to the Vermont Supreme Court.

"Starting in Vermont, we are looking to create case law that will set precedent for similar cases," Sarah Scheele said.

New Legal Territory

The Humane Society of the United States is one of the organizations fighting for new laws that reflect society's current attitude towards animals.

"We favor a general provision to recognize that there is an emotional dimension to this issue, and there should be compensation for people whose pets are the victims of cruelty," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society.

In the 1979 case of Corso v. Crawford Dog and Cat Hospital, Inc., a New York judge delivered a landmark ruling awarding a woman damages for the mistreatment of her dead dog's body by a pet hospital.

"To say it [the dog] is a piece of personal property and no more is a repudiation of our humaneness. This I cannot accept," the judge said in her ruling.

Since then, courts in states such as California, Tennessee and Kentucky have awarded some damages above the "market-value" of the animals to owners who have lost their pets to cruelty.

"Case precedent is a significant step in paving the way for legislation," said Dana Campbell, senior attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. "These cases can help show that loss of companionship should be a cause of action."

But other courts continue to reject the claims, and legislation is still lacking. So advocates are taking their cause one state at a time. If the Scheeles succeed in Vermont, they will next take their case to Maryland, their home state.

"History shows that cruelty issues are settled on the state level. State lawmakers will be considering public opinion as they introduce new legislation to reflect society's antipathy towards acts of animal cruelty," Pacelle said.

But one lawyer who has fought to stop these types of lawsuits says this issue has nothing to do with love for furry friends.

Victor Schwartz, a partner at the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Shook, Hardy & Bacon and co-author of the Pepperdine law review article, "Non-Economic Damages in Pet Litigation: The Serious Need to Preserve a Rational Rule," is an animal lover.

But Schwartz says courts siding on the side of emotion are risking heading down a slippery slope, since veterinarians, pet boarders, and animal medicine manufacturers will be plagued with lawsuits and liability insurance will skyrocket.

"If everyone is able to sue for unspecified amounts based on emotional damages, the cost of veterinary medicine will become unaffordable for most people," he said.

Schwartz added that means for seeking damages in cases of animal cruelty already exist in the courts.

In most states, including Vermont, civil lawsuits allow people to sue for punitive damages in cases of "conscious reckless wrongdoing." That means if someone's animal is intentionally hurt or killed, pet owners already have the option to sue for damages and deter such behavior.

So, Schwartz said, the need to award damages based on emotional loss is unnecessary and would only hurt pet owners in the long run.

"We don't need to enlarge the scope of liability," he said. "Criminal law exists to punish individuals who perpetrate cruelty. If those laws aren't strong enough, we need to make them stronger."

The Scheeles say they simply want to honor Shadow's memory. Eventually, the couple hopes for "Shadow's Law" to become federal law, ensuring that animals have legal standing in all states.

"Animal cruelty goes on everyday everywhere," Sarah Scheele said. "But if there's a law that recognizes pets as beings that deserve respect, maybe people will think twice before they're cruel to an animal."