The last few weeks I’ve had my nose to the grindstone, or rather my eyes on the laptop screen and my fingers near the keyboard, so I didn’t pick up on this story till 11 days after it happened. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Short version: On Sunday, November 11, two dogs got away from their owner in Vineyard Meadow Farms, a West Tisbury subdivision off the Edgartown–West Tisbury Road. After a few minutes, the owner heard gunshots. The shooter later contacted the assistant animal control officer and turned the body of one of the dogs over to him. The other dog came home with a “wound on its neck,” according to the original Martha’s Vineyard Times story posted on November 20, “but [the owner] wasn’t sure what caused the wound.”
By the time I got to that story, two days later, it had more than a hundred comments on it. (Just looked: the tally is now up to 175, but as you might suspect, it’s the same old dogs chewing on the same old bones.) A follow-up story, “West Tisbury Sees No Further Action on Dog/Chicken Incident,” was posted on December 5.
People are still talking about the incident. I’m still thinking about it, not least because I have a dog who would happily help himself to someone else’s chickens if he got the chance. My very first thought when I saw the photo of Chi, the dog that was killed, was Whew. It’s not a northern-breed dog. A high-profile case in my town last winter involved Akitas. An even-higher-profile case in Tisbury a few years back involved Siberian huskies. Travvy is a northern-breed dog. There but for fortune . . .
My second thought followed hard on the first: Huh? Was that dog really trying to kill the chickens? Chi looked like a herding dog. He was indeed a sheltie–border collie mix. Yes, individuals vary tremendously within any breed or type. General truths don’t predict what any individual is going to do. But a certain skepticism slithered into my brain — a skepticism that never would have surfaced if the dead dog had looked like a Sibe or an Akita or an Alaskan malamute.
What were the dogs doing? Had they visited the shooter’s place before? We don’t know and we aren’t going to know. The town’s animal control officer (ACO) doesn’t have to release this information. Hard as it is for some people to believe, we the public don’t have the right to know everything, and in this case I agree with the ACO’s decision not to disclose the shooter’s identity. No good purpose could be served by releasing it, and it would almost certainly trigger anonymous and not-so-anonymous harassment of that individual. On Martha’s Vineyard, as elsewhere, our capacity for intemperate rhetoric and general nastiness seems to increase with our distance from the situation.
According to state law, “Any person may kill a dog found out of the enclosure of its owner or keeper and not under his immediate care in the act of worrying, wounding, or killing persons, livestock or fowls.” No report need be filed, and no liability is incurred unless there’s evidence of intentional cruelty on the part of the shooter, which in this case there wasn’t.
The law is clear. Just about everyone around here knows that farmers (and non-farmers too, for that matter) have the right to shoot dogs that are hassling their “livestock or fowls.” But the law is black and white, and the issues raised by this case live in the great gray expanse that the law doesn’t cover.
For instance, the law says a person can shoot a dog hassling his or her livestock, but it doesn’t say a person has to shoot the dog. Choice comes into play here, and where choice is involved we’re talking ethics at least as much as we’re talking law. You or I might have made a different choice in similar circumstances, but the choice wasn’t ours to make. That’s hard to accept, but accept it we must.
Even harder to accept is the sheer bad luck involved. Two dogs got away from their owner. Within a short time one of them was dead. Dogs get away from their owners all the time, but usually nothing bad happens. When Travvy’s prey drive was starting to kick in, around his first birthday, he got away from me several times before I realized that, unlike the late Rhodry, he couldn’t come with me on trail rides and would probably never be reliable off-leash. Nothing bad happened on his escapades: he wasn’t killed and he didn’t kill anything. Chi wasn’t so lucky.
Most days most of us get away scot-free from at least one situation that could have serious consequences. We’re carrying a too-heavy load down the stairs and almost fall. We’re woolgathering behind the wheel and almost run a stop sign into oncoming traffic. We get into a car whose driver is at least a little bit tipsy but we get home OK. We get away with these things so often that when the sword actually falls, we’re shocked. Angry even. Deep down we know that luck is unreliable and ours has finally run out, but that doesn’t make it easier to accept.
Especially when death is the consequence. Death is non-negotiable. Some injuries aren’t reversible. But no, we aren’t going to start acting as if the worst-case scenario were inevitable, or even likely. That way lies depression and paralysis.
Once upon a time, “farmer kills dog” wouldn’t have caused so much controversy. Farmers kept livestock. Their livestock was part of their livelihood. Farmers also kept dogs, for herding, guarding, and hunting. Everybody knew the rules: a dog that threatened livestock was a menace, a luxury that no one could afford.
These days working dogs are far outnumbered by pets. Many pet owners consider their dogs members of the family. You can calculate the price of livestock, but “members of the family” don’t have a price tag. If a neighbor’s child threatens your chickens, or even your sheep, cattle, or horses, you are not entitled to shoot it.
Consider, too, that these days people keep fowl and even other small livestock on properties that are more accurately described as house lots, not farms. A loose dog doesn’t have far to travel before it’s on a neighbor’s property. In this case, the dog lived in a subdivision. We don’t know that the shooter lived in the same or any other subdivision. Still, the question does come up: If you’re not supposed to discharge a firearm within 500 feet of an inhabited dwelling, is it OK to do so if you’re protecting your livestock from a loose dog?
Things have changed enough that the law could stand some scrutiny and possibly some amendment, but in this particular case the hard-to-swallow truth is that Chi’s luck ran out and sometimes you don’t get a second chance.