Doggone bad

April 11, 1994|By Jeff Stryker

WHAT happens when good dogs go bad?

Consider Taro, the 110-pound Akita from New Jersey recently granted clemency but exiled by Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Taro, whose psychiatrist describes him as shy and withdrawn, was sentenced to death after being accused of biting his owner's niece on Christmas Day, 1990.

The dog spent more than 1,000 days as Bergen County's prisoner No. 914095.

The legal fees surpassed $100,000.

It is tempting to view Taro's case as a modern aberration -- American litigiousness gone off the deep end.

Not so: Animal trials have been around for centuries.

In medieval Europe, pigs, horses and other animals were tried for killing or injuring humans. Public beheading and hanging were typical punishments. Defendants were usually imprisoned and fed at the king's expense, while defense lawyers debated arcane points of precedent in lengthy trials.

Ecclesiastical courts heard cases involving damages to crops by pests and vermin. Church lawyers and judges struggled with procedures to insure that locusts and mice would get a fair trial.

Foreshadowing modern class-action suits, jars of locusts were accepted as representing all the locusts in question.

In the 1520s, a Frenchman, Bartholomew Chassenee, established his legal reputation by defending rats charged with "feloniously eating and wantonly destroying" a barley crop.

His clients' unpopularity forced Chassenee to resort to all manner of legal chicanery.

He insisted that the prosecutors post summonses in parishes across the countryside.

According to court documents, he argued that his clients could not risk the journey to appear in court because of "the unwearied vigilance of their mortal enemies, the cats."

Stalling tactics and legal technicalities won the day; the rats walked.

E.P. Evans, who described many such cases in a 1906 book, "The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals," puzzled over what these legal rituals meant to the medieval mind.

Crowds gathered to attend animal executions, but Evans doubted that they thought the animals understood what was going on.

In the centuries since Chassenee was at the bar, activists like Peter Singer, author of "Animal Liberation," have cited animals' awareness, intelligence and capacity for suffering as a philosophical basis for animal rights.

Scientists, long the betes noires of antivivisectionists, have paradoxically given the movement impetus.

Behavioral research has yielded a better understanding of the mental and emotional life of animals, with insights that transcend anthropomorphism.

Scientists debate whether it is language when a chimpanzee signs a neologism for "ring" by putting together two signs she has previously learned -- "finger" and "bracelet."

I am not sure whether animals use language (or, if they do, that they have much to say). But more and more animals are having DTC their day in court, from Taro to the 17 monkeys kidnapped from a Maryland research lab in 1981 to Keiko, the whale-hero of the movie "Free Willy."

The day is coming when the first chimp signs that he needs a bigger cage, pay in greenbacks, not bananas, and wants to talk to the ACLU.

Animal rights activists will eventually owe much to lawyers. Law schools that once glossed over the "first-bite rule" (a dog gets one free bite and henceforth its owners are on notice about its dangerous propensities) now offer seminars in animal rights.

And why not?

After all, lawyers have long accepted rats as clients.

Jeff Stryker is a health policy analyst specializing in medical ethics.

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