Death row dog gets walking papers Justice: 'Vicious' dog lives, but must leave N.H. town. After rabid reporting, state should consider a media leash law.

February 12, 1997|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Anyone who thought American justice had gone to the dogs in the O.J. Simpson case should have come to this trendy seacoast town for the trials of Prince, the death row dog.

Yesterday, after five months of legal wrangling, Prince, who'd been locked up for killing a rooster, was spared his life. But before that happened, so did this:

Animal-rights activists threatened to burn down the animal hospital where Prince was being held.

Late one night, an anonymous caller with a gruff voice phoned veterinarian Stephen Askin's unlisted home number.

"The voice told me that if I euthanized the dog, his 'movement' would euthanize me," the owner of the Portsmouth Animal Hospital nervously recalled. "That's when I knew things were getting a little out of hand."

While the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals euthanized 145 stray and sick dogs last year without attracting Dan Rather's attention, Prince won coverage by, among others, the New York Times, CNN, "Good Morning America," "48 Hours," "Hard Copy," an Italian newspaper and a Colombian radio station.

Newly elected Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who owned a cocker spaniel as a child, offered a pardon hearing to Prince as one of her first acts in office.

And while the last human being to be executed in New Hampshire, Howard Long, was hung in 1939 without a vigil, supporters of Prince, the "Dead Dog Walking," huddled with candles Monday night outside a downtown church.

Just how Prince went from Labrador mix to legend is one of those mysteries of our media age. The facts of his crime are fairly straightforward. The 3 1/2 -year-old black Labrador-malamute mix with stylish white goatee and adolescent demeanor, was infamous among neighbors as a free-roaming, bird-chasing dog. He finally ran afoul of the law last August, when he trespassed in a neighbor's yard and snapped the neck of a bantam rooster named Gus.

The city's animal control officer warned Prince's owners, both young bar managers, that the city would enforce its unusual "three strikes and you're euthanized" law for dogs that repeatedly run free and bite people or pets. But twice more, witnesses saw Prince parading leashless through the streets.

And so, even though Prince never so much as nipped a human being, a panel of city officials pronounced him "vicious," and sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

What is not so easily explained has been the response of humans to Prince's predicament. Some observers blame the guerrilla warfare over the Death Row Doggie on the city's overzealous animal-control laws. Others say the uproar has exposed the violently misanthropic hearts of animal lovers.

What no one can dispute is that the case has bared once again the tragically trivial souls of the news media.

On the eve of Prince's sentencing hearing Monday, spotlights from four humming television satellite trucks overwhelmed the dim flicker of candles outside the Colonial-era North Church. The 20 prayerful were outnumbered two-to-one by journalists shouldering TV cameras and swinging boom microphones.

One of the owners of the dog, Margie Kristiansen, a 27-year-old bartender and mother of two, was so hounded by the elbow-throwing camera-warriors that she appeared on the verge of tears. At one point, a ring of more than 15 reporters backed her against the church's front wall as she cradled a tiny candle. Her mother-in-law hid behind her.

"I don't know why this whole thing got so big," Kristiansen said. "I certainly didn't invite you all here! I've had to take the phone off the hook just so I can get some rest. My answering machine reads like TV Guide."

Talking to another reporter nearby, animal-rights activist Roger Corriveau, 40, demanded a "jury of dogs" as a remedy for the "tragedy" of having Prince's actions judged by humans. Still other protesters cried "foul justice," pointing out that the rooster Prince had killed was being kept in violation of a law that bans farm animals within city limits.

"If we allow chickens in our city, what will we have next? Buffaloes? Cockatoos?" asked Thomas "Chief" Malone, a 47-year-old Salvation Army worker.

A few television reporters stood away from the crowd, earnestly practicing bad puns until they were camera-perfect. "Tomorrow, this may be the dog formerly known as Prince," one reporter said in a solemn voice. "Panting for pardon ... canine doing time ... media mutt ... locked-up Labrador ... dogged justice." The cliche industry was hard at work.

Finally, yesterday morning, Judge Alvin E. Taylor entered a packed courtroom guarded by nine law officers to announce that prosecutors and defenders had reached a compromise. In a classic plea bargain, the charges were dropped in exchange for Prince's owners' promise to find him a new home safely outside city limits.

In a mocking reprise of the flashcard announcement of last week's Simpson verdict, a reporter for "Hard Copy" ran to the courtroom's window and held up a sign reading "Prince Lives!" for her cameraman.

As the principals in the case left the courtroom, a surge of reporters nearly knocked Kristiansen's 5-year-old son, Jeffrey, to the ground as they swarmed around them seeking interviews. The dog's attorney, Peter Marsh, lifted his voice above the mob.

"Until this ordinance is repealed, Portsmouth is not a good place to be a dog or have a dog!" he intoned, a veritable Johnnie Cochran of the canine set.

Television crews sped to the animal shelter and nearly brawled in the lobby over who would be the first to do an on-camera interview with Prince and his veterinarian/jailer, Askin. Other reporters drove to the home of the late rooster, Gus, hoping to find a reaction shot among his grieving henhouse mates. But the chickens, like everyone else in Portsmouth, had apparently had enough.

Balanced on the gate to the henhouse was a cardboard sign with chicken-scrawl writing on it. "No more pictures!" it read.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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