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Lange: A Dog's Life

04/16/10 7:55AM By Willem Lange
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(HOST) We've all heard of a dog's life.  But what's it worth?  Commentator Willem Lange tells us about a case that's pending in the Vermont Supreme Court.

(LANGE)  The facts of the case are not in dispute.  In July 2003 a couple from Maryland was visiting relatives in Northfield, Vermont.  Their dog wandered onto neighboring property, where the elderly property owner shot at it with a pellet gun, intending, he says, to hit it in the rear end and frighten it off his property.  Instead, the pellet penetrated the dog’s chest.  It died in its anguished owner’s lap on the way to a veterinarian.

There are many ways to react to this sort of incident.  Some bloggers have referred to it as a "tragedy."  Others have called it the unfeeling action of a "stupid old man" overreacting with far too much force.  A few have written, "It’s just a dog; get over it."

Cited into court, the shooter pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty.  He was sentenced to a year's probation, 100 hours of community service, and counseling.  He also paid $4,000 in restitution.  But that wasn’t the end of it.  The bereaved owners rescue dogs from shelters and raise them much like children - feeding them "people food," brushing their teeth after meals, and taking them everywhere.  Heinous as it may be to shoot a pet, in this case the Vermonter couldn’t have chosen more recklessly.

The owners felt the penalties assessed against the shooter were far too lenient.  They filed a lawsuit seeking further damages based on the loss of the dog’s companionship and their emotional distress.  The old man was soon back in court.

After his guilty plea, penalties, and attorney's fees, he was in no shape to fight additional court proceedings. The case has expanded to challenging the common law principle that a pet is personal property, rather than a companion, or even a member of the family.  It proceeded through Superior Court, which is bound by existing law, to the Supreme Court of Vermont, which will rule based on current notions of the relationship between pets and their owners.  Montpelier attorney David Blythe has argued the defendant’s case pro bono.

David Putter, the plaintiff’s lawyer, argued that current law treats the loss of a dog "...the same way as the loss of an end table."
Blythe responds, "Can you effectively create a special rule just for dogs?  Why not cats?  Why not horses?"

However it sugars off - a decision is expected any day from the Supreme Court - it’s a fascinating glimpse into changes in our attitudes toward domestic animals.  Laws can evolve as we do.  Whether any change is in the offing of the principle that equates pets with personal possessions is anybody’s guess.  Dog lovers would find it an affirmation of what they feel.  But they might balk at its extension to an iguana.  No change would be a load off the defendant’s mind and property, but an affront to the plaintiffs.  Either way, it’s a great study in how we create or change our laws to meet our needs.  Stay tuned!

This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.
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