Doggie Downer

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, lawyers.

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.”

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

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