Is it legal to eat your cat?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 12 2010 5:32 PM

Here, Kitty, Kitty, Kitty

Is it legal to eat your cat?

Cat. Click image to expand.
Is it legal to eat your cat?

When police in Western New York pulled over Gary Korkuc for blowing off a stop sign on Sunday, they found a live cat in his trunk, covered in cooking oil, peppers, and salt. Korkuc told authorities that his pet feline was "possessive, greedy, and wasteful" and that he intended to cook and eat it. Korkuc has been charged with animal cruelty. Is there a legal way to cook and eat a cat?

Maybe in some places, but not New York. Few states have specific laws barring the use of pets for food. The ones that do typically ban the slaughter or sale of dog and cat meat. The state of New York expressly prohibits "any person to slaughter or butcher domesticated dog (canis familiaris) or domesticated cat (felis catus or domesticus) to create food, meat or meat products for human or animal consumption." It's not clear whether the eating itself is outlawed or only the butchery. If you managed to buy dog or cat flesh from someone else who broke the anti-slaughter law, you might be OK. The law also doesn't cover ferrets, gerbils, parakeets, or other less familiar pet species. (Although the general anti-cruelty law might protect exotics.)

California's anti-pet-eating law has a broader reach. It bars possession of the carcass, so having bought your cat steaks from someone else wouldn't be a useful alibi. The California law also protects "any animal traditionally or commonly kept as a pet or companion," rather than just Fido and Fluffy. The statute is somewhat untested, though, so no one really knows which animals are included. Pigs are not, even though they are commonly kept as pets, because they are farm animals. Horses are specifically covered by a different section of the code. There's no precedent on iguanas, goldfish, or boa constrictors.

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In most of the country, the legality of pet-eating would come down to the specific language of the general animal cruelty statute and how a judge interpreted it. Some states, such as Virginia, bar the unnecessary killing of an animal, with a specific exemption for "farming activities." In those places, it's very likely that killing a cat for dinner would get you in trouble, because the killing wouldn't be necessary, and cats aren't commonly associated with farming.

On the other end of the spectrum are states like Missouri, where very few restrictions are placed on when, why, and how an owner can kill his pet. In these areas, it would be difficult to lock up a cat-eater, unless his chosen means of slaughter were particularly inhumane.

Authorities won't have any trouble prosecuting Korkuc, the Western New Yorker who was marinating his cat in the trunk. Whether or not he really intended to eat his feline, keeping a companion animal in a motor vehicle without proper ventilation is illegal. Rubbing the cat with chili-infused oil, while not specifically addressed, is also a violation of the state's general cruelty law, which prohibits torture.

Worldwide, cat and dog meat seem to be at a crossroads. China pulled dog meat off the market for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is considering a law barring it permanently. South Korea, on the other hand, has inched toward explicitly legalizing the widespread and officially tolerated dog-meat trade.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Debora Bresch of the ASPCA, David Favre of Michigan State University College of Law, Adam Parascandola of the Humane Society of the United States, and David Wolfson of Columbia University.

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Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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