By Sean M. Smith
Recently, I inadvertently blundered into a TV show I wouldn’t ordinarily watch. The
show in question was “Animal Cops: Houston” on the Animal Planet network. In the
episode, a dog was rescued from a home by the Houston SPCA. The dog had been
subjected to unspeakable abuse and neglect. I’ll spare you the details and only say that
I’ll be involuntarily cringing for the next couple of weeks until I’m able to shake the
images from my head — and I’m not particularly squeamish.
Despite the suffering the dog had endured at the hands of creatures it was bred to protect,
comfort and befriend, viewers at first experience relief that he was rescued and optimism
toward the prospect of his recovery. In addition to being infinitely loving and joyful
creatures, after all, dogs are stunningly resilient. But it was not to be, and the letdown was
palpable. Oh, the dog recovered all right — only to be euthanized. The reason? In a word,
It all went down as follows: Over three weeks, the dog substantially recovered from his
injuries and put weight back onto his emaciated frame. Then, a dog behavior specialist
was brought in to gauge his “adoptability.” Liability issues, you see. She subjected the
dog to a battery of tests to determine aggression or maladjustment. He passed with flying
colors and was astonishingly affectionate and gentle toward the behaviorist given all he’d
been through. Until, that is, they got to the final two tests: aggression toward other dogs
and “food aggression.”
The former involved bringing another dog into the room and monitoring the rescued
dog’s reaction. As someone who’s spent a lifetime around dogs, I can assure the reader
that his growling and posturing was not the slightest bit unusual. This is a common way
for dogs to square off until they get better acquainted. It’s a doggy culture thing.
Nonetheless, a black mark went into his chart. Not good.
The food aggression test was even more ridiculous. It involved mercilessly shoving a
rubber human hand on a stick repeatedly in the dog’s face while he was trying to eat.
Eventually — surprise! — he lashed out and bit the hand. I would too. Is it unreasonable
to speculate that perhaps the dog knew he was biting a rubber hand and not a real human
hand? I know my dogs can tell the difference.
All appeals to common sense notwithstanding, the dog was ruled unadoptable. He would
be humanely euthanized now that he’d been nursed back to health. Several of the SPCA
shelter staff took time to explain that this was in the dog’s best interest because there was
no possible way the shelter could shoulder the liability should this dog bite someone if
adopted out. These people have been battered into a mindset of extreme risk-aversion.
Lawyers have done the battering.
Here’s an idea: How about full disclosure by the shelter to a prospective new owner that
the dog could, if harassed relentlessly, possibly bite someone. This could be coupled with
an agreement by the new owner to indemnify the shelter from liability, along with a
requirement to show proof of homeowner’s insurance coverage. Or, state legislators
could simply bypass the possibility that some slime bag plaintiff’s lawyer would
nonetheless go after the shelter by enacting a law granting blanket immunity from
lawsuits to benevolent animal welfare organizations acting in good faith.
An even crazier notion — we could revisit the mode of thought that fostered peaceable
coexistence within human communities from the origin of our species until roughly the
1970s, the period approximating the rise of a new form of intestinal roundworm known
as the modern trial attorney. With this nematode sprang forth the idea that there would no
longer be such a thing as a “frivolous” claim brought in a court of law. Prior to that sea
change in public perceptions of cause, consequence and personal responsibility, people
lived their lives according to a now nearly extinct set of doctrines collectively known as
Common sense engendered an intuitive understanding of a few simple facts, to wit: Life
is messy, precarious and unpredictable, and bad things sometimes happen to good people.
Also in those days, every person over the age of 12 did not require coverage by a half
dozen or more liability insurance policies in order to leave the house.
Now comes the full disclosure part of this story, following the advice of my legal
counsel: I am, if you want to get really technical, a lawyer, though I’m increasingly
reluctant to admit it. I know many of my kind who are professionals of the utmost
character and integrity. This polemic is not directed at them but rather the breed of
bottom-dwelling parasites seeking to make every grievance, twist of fate or minor
inconvenience incidental to living on this planet into an actionable event, for which all of
us pay the price.
In the middle of this broadcast came an instance of irony too deliciously perfect for me to
make up. An advertisement aired for the Law Offices of James Sokolove. If you haven’t
seen one of these ads, you haven’t turned on a TV in 10 years. This firm started out as a
clearinghouse for asbestos exposure and mesothelioma claims but has since metastasized
into areas of brazen litigiousness that would put Elliot Spitzer to shame. This particular
ad — I swear — advised that if you had lost money in a mutual fund, IRA, the stock
market, or any other investment of any kind, you may be entitled to a large cash
settlement. Presumably this would cover a botched trade in chicken gizzard futures or
speculation in underwater real estate. I’m waiting for the ad that says, if anything bad has
ever happened to you at any point in your life, someone else, especially if they have deep
pockets, is probably responsible, so call us right away.
We can ultimately thank these bastards, and the unprincipled, milquetoast judges and
juries who enable them, for the fact that an innocent animal was put to death. They’re
also the reason you pay so much for every type of insurance, from auto to homeowner’s to medical to general liability. Come to think of it, they’re the reason everything costs so
much. Businesses also pay a lot for insurance, and why should they take the hit when
they can pass the pain onto you, the consumer? Then, of course, we sue them for
“gouging” us, further driving up their costs and causing them to seriously contemplate
relocating to China. But I digress...
Instead, perhaps I should celebrate the trails being blazed by plaintiffs’ litigators. After
all, if this keeps up much longer, I’ll be able to hoist them on their own petards by
bringing a class action suit against the entire plaintiffs’ bar on behalf of every dog ever
euthanized by well-meaning animal protection organizations motivated by fear of
lawyers. I’ll sue the ABA, the ATLA — the possibilities are endless. And since everyone
knows nematodes can be made to eat their young for the right price, maybe I’ll even get
James Sokolove to take my case.
BrainstormNW - February 2007