Over the years I have been practicing I have probably handled a dozen cases in which I was hired by the owner-guardians of a dog who had bitten someone, whether that someone was a person or another dog or cat. These cases seem to be getting more common these days, but that is just an anecdotal observation and it may simply be that I am seeing more of them because I have done some and people look for someone who has experience with them.
For whatever reason I am seeing them, I can say that I like working for the dangerous dogs. There are a number of aspects of these matters that make this so. First, the cases always start off with my putative client (the dog) being designated as either “dangerous” or “vicious” under the applicable local ordinance, and being sentenced to death.
The part I like is the immediate challenge of starting with an adverse and unjust ruling and having the strong motivation to try to overturn it; and as a lawyer fighting for animal protection, I am accustomed to being the underhuman and taking on those types of conflicts. Second, and maybe most exciting, is the potential payoff for all involved. That is, if we win, a life is truly saved – and one I can meet and pet.The dog is always loved, or the humans would not be paying a lawyer to try to save her. And in most cases, the dog is not guilty of anything but a single transgression; in other words, these cases do not usually involve multiple offenders, but dogs who have had one or two incidents that have led them to be determined fit to die by our society’s summary dismissal of animal life. The cases involve innocents and (usually) errors or aberrations that certainly do not deserve death. Third, the cases are “fun” from a litigator’s point of view because they are quick mini-trials without the restrictions of the rules of evidence or formalized procedure. (This has its downside too, of course.)
So they are good practice for young lawyers, and a pleasant exercise for seasoned litigators. Fourth, the cases are usually relatively self-contained and time-limited. In most situations, the hearing resolves the issue to the extent that the human clients are satisfied. The time between the designation of the dog and the hearing is usually less than a month, and the decision is usually delivered shortly thereafter. It is true that these cases have the potential to last for years, if they leave the administrative process and go through the courts, but that is the rare one.
The cases are also often different in terms of the specific hearing practices and usually the applicable laws. In most states, each local municipality (county or sometimes town) has its own separate ordinance regarding the designation and punishment for “dangerous/vicious” dogs. By way of example, within an hour of my office, County One designates a dog “dangerous” if they kill another animal, and “vicious” if they inflict a “severe injury” on a human.The “dangerous” dogs there are usually quarantined and subject to some restrictions on their time outside of their homes; the “vicious” dogs are euthanized. County Two, for the very same behavior, may only impose a sentence of “probation” so that as long as the dog stays out of trouble for three years, he is fine. And County Three has an ordinance that says that if a dog bites another dog, and that bite requires sutures, the biter is automatically “vicious” and should die. (And of course in addition to the different counties’ treatment of the circumstances, there is often the added consideration of the breed of the dog – if you are a member of the bully breeds, the chances that you will be deemed subject to euthanasia definitely increases.)
Jessie, a yellow lab-looking dog, lives in County Three. She is the beloved companion of a family of four, and for her five years of life she has never done anything wrong. Last month she bit another dog, and that dog required stitches. The county’s animal control department determined that Jessie was “vicious” under the county ordinance and that she should be killed. It may be hard to believe what I just said, so let me be clear. Jessie, once in her life, bit another dog, who required stitches. For that she was sentenced to death.
Her family called me looking for help. Lisa McCurdy has worked with me on five of these cases, and saved every dog, so I suggested that she take primary responsibility for the case and see if we could convince the hearing officer to save Jessie, despite the strict nature of the ordinance. Lisa collected a behaviorist’s evaluation, statements from several witnesses who knew Jessie and knew her otherwise unblemished record of kindness, and we wrote a brief on the issue, arguing the only aspects of the law we thought might give us some relief and provide Jessie with the ability to place her paws on free ground again. (She had been locked in the local humane society, away from her family, since the incident.) And it all paid off. We are now five for five, because the hearing officer last week determined that we established sufficient grounds to reverse the vicious dog designation that required euthanasia. As of last Tuesday, Jessie was destined to die. As of Thursday, only paperwork kept her apart from a return to the heart and hearth of her home.
To say we were over the top of the moon with joy and relief, as were our human clients, is an understatement. And when I decided to tell some folks about our victory, I never thought my thrill at saving Jessie’s life would lead to visceral attacks on me and ultimately on the basic notion of humane treatment of animals, and the concept of justice. But it did, and the barbed comments I received are telling.
Let me explain. A fundamental aspect of the move towards greater protection for animals is the fairly simple agreement among reasonably-minded people that sentient beings deserve a modicum of consideration before we treat them cruelly, cause them pain, or kill them. So I was fairly shocked (and I don’t shock easily, given the daily flow of information about animal suffering) at the response by a few individuals to my announcement that Jessie’s life had been saved. I’ll say first that this was a very small minority of the responses I received, but it really highlights the divide that remains about animal sentiency.
I sent out an email to colleagues, friends and family about Jessie’s case. In pertinent part, it read:
“Yesterday was a very proud and happy day, as we were responsible for saving someone from an impending execution. [I then told the story related above, about Jessie’s biting, the hearing, and the result.]
“Jessie will be able to return home to her family (which includes two children who love Jessie very much), who are extremely grateful to us for saving the life of their canine child.
While this may not be the typical “capital case,” to Lisa and I, and to the human clients, and especially to Jessie, it was clearly as important as any such case.”
Honestly, I thought the email was as benign and positive as it could be. I also assumed because there were no animal rights issues, no veganism mentions, and no call for restrictions on research, that there would be little objection to the effort. I also assumed that because it involved dogs, it would be roundly received as a very positive result. And again, almost everyone who responded, agreed and congratulated us heartily. But among the congratulations I also received this email:
“Lisa obviously did a great job. That said, my wife handles actual capital cases. Bruce, please don’t ever send me another e-mail again. Animals are not people. That you value animals as though they were people disgusts me.”
Whoa. I don’t think I said anywhere that I thought that I value animals as though they were people, but even if I do, my personal beliefs apparently “disgust” this lawyer to the point of trying to demand that I stop writing to him? Now there’s a blow to respecting other’s feelings and ideas – and again, my email raised no such argument. And while I can assure you that there are a few (or many) things most people do that “disgust me”, I never thought that this was a reason to cut off communication, especially not when they are professional colleagues. In fact, that may be all the more reason to continue the dialogue.
But the combination of the venom spat in my direction, along with the disregard of the value of Jessie’s life (to Jessie and her family and lawyers only), was quite a reality check. It put in stark relief the blindered view of at least this small and vicious minority. Equally so did a series of comments about my email regarding the victory, which ultimately ended with a “Shame on you!” to me, that came from another person, who regularly self-identifies as a proud killer of innocent animals. First, he stated that I had alienated most people when I stated that this case “was as important as a human death penalty case.” Of course, I think it was pretty clear that I said it was that important to Lisa, to Jessie, and to Jessie’s family. And it was. He then told me that the law and I had “differing views” with respect to the treatment of animals, as if that meant that it was undisputed that I should cease the discussion and my efforts to change the law. I pointed out that the existence of unjust laws had never stopped lawyers and right-minded people from trying to change what is wrong in our society. I’m not sure I was far off when I told him I assumed he would have also been on the side of those who sought to keep women from voting and to keep African-Americans enslaved – after all, that was the law at one point. And so after all, at those points in time, the law said that such an effort was wrong. I was not saying that those humans and dogs are the same, only that the law is clearly sometimes wrong and ripe for changeLike now. Perhaps most tellingly, he did not deny his agreement with my assumption that he would have been equally entrenched on the side of unjust laws in those other situations. That is the kind of mentality we fight.
This is an extreme minority view, but they are vocal, dangerous and vicious, and they will seek to maintain the status quo and the dominance of power over animals and their protection. What we need to do is to continue to fight, legally and with sharp minds and arguments, to change the law, and hopefully with that to change their minds. Look at your local dangerous/vicious dog ordinance and if it is draconian (like in Jessie’s case), work to get it changed. Do that before your dog is the next Jessie.
The bad news for that dangerous and vicious minority of those who wave the flag of superiority without considering sentience is that we are not going to stop fighting, not until every one of us who sees the injustice meted out on animals has been killed or died. We are not going to stop seeking justice, because there are too many innocent animals at stake, in abattoirs and shelters, and (like Jessie) in our homes