Attractive Nuisance Doctrine


First let me make a cheap pun at Zanzibar’s expense, and say that because he is usually purring at my elbow when I’m writing this blog, it is his fault that I don’t catch all the typos before hitting “publish.” Like typing “Packer Leader,” when I meant, of course, “Pack Leader,” in the previous post. “If only his eyes weren’t so adorably blue…”

As those of you who have a swimming pool on your property know [and we learned, when we bought Dusk the QuarterHorse], an “Attractive Nuisance” is a term of art in tort law, referring to any animate or inanimate object which poses a threat, “because of its attraction, to children who will be unlikely to recognize its dangerous quality.” [Webster’s 1988 ed.] In Michigan [where tort lawyers abound] we had to buy Attractive Nuisance liability insurance on Dusk, even though she lived at a private riding stable, across town from our home. [In fact, she lived in Sterling Heights, whence cometh Marshall Mathers III. Check it.]

Now let us consider the External/Internal Locus of Control doctrine, which the UK researchers tried to measure in 10-year-olds, with a self-report questionnaire. A girl with a high level of External Locus of Control will tell her parents, “The horse whinnied at me, so I knew it was hungry, so I gave it my Ice Lolly to lick [remember, we’re in the UK], and it bit my hand!” [In Michigan, that would be a Popcicle.] Was a sign posted on the stall door, saying “Do not feed this horse without owner’s permission”? Not good enough. What if the child is too young to read? Tell you what the management at the London Zoo do. They post this surreal but high concept sign with a human hand, out of which a cookie-cutter-[or, biscuit-cutter]-shaped chunk is missing, near the cages of animals whom it is dangerous to feed. Next time I own a horse, I’m posting that sign on the stall door.

What if the horse spared the child, but ate the rod [in this case, the Ice Lolly/Popcicle stick]? Would the family of the young doner of the ill-advised confection be liable for the vet bill, to remove the wood splinters from the horse’s throat? Not bloody likely! The horse would be diagnosed with “Dietary Indiscretion,” and its owner would be charged for its treatment.

So, you see where I’m going with this, right? Up to a certain age, the law attributes External Locus of Control to young ones, and blames bad outcome on others [man & beast]. After that age, though, all bets are off. If, as a teenager, you schmize my horse into eating a dangerous stick [and I catch you at it], you’re guilty of animal abuse. An adult caught feeding a zoo animal will be prosecuted [right after being discharged from the ER]. So, how is this shift from External to Internal Locus of Control supposed to happen? Passage of time? Trial and error? Fairy dust?

I happen to believe it happens by grown-up Pack Leaders [there!] keeping an eye on young ones, and issuing Conative commands to them [such as “Don’t feed the animals, unless you ask first.”], along with a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not. [“Cuz I say so,” does not count as a Sound-Bite-on-Why-Not, incidentally.] So, here’s what I’m saying, grown-ups. Man up, and risk the humiliation of a hissy fit from the thwarted young person [or their doting parents], in the name of animal welfare, of child welfare, of public order. Think of these Sound-Bites-of-Why-Not as your own, award winning Public Service Announcements. The more novel and amusing [usually], the more effective they are.

The alternative is the intrusive mission creep of increasingly silly tort avoidance notices from which we now suffer, warning us that a cup of Hot Chocolate “might be hot.” That raw eggs may contain salmonella. That roads may be slippery when wet.

Get working on those PSAs, folks.

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Filed under leading a pack, locus of control, pro bono publico, semiotics

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