A Tragic Cautionary Tale For Dog Owners Everywhere

Photo: Courtesy of Anna Casey.
Ruby, adopted by writer Anna Casey, was shot and killed after she got loose one day.
When Ruby slipped out of my yard one afternoon in January, my housemates and I immediately set out on a panicked search.

As a twentysomething living in Austin, TX, 500 miles away from my family, my 2-year-old pit bull mix was an unconditional companion, my running buddy, and even went with me to the coffee shop on weekends. Because Ruby was deaf, calling for her to come home would do no good.

As we scoured the neighborhood, we approached a man tossing a football in the cul-de-sac outside his house with his young son, thinking maybe he spotted her.

He had. But his answer confirmed my greatest fear: Ruby was dead.

He saw Ruby in his backyard, chasing his chickens and his cat, so he decided to shoot her. Multiple times.

“I’ve already called the police,” he explained. “They’re on their way.”

I was overcome by grief and shocked by the casual manner in which this man, my neighbor, told me my dog was dead. Ruby had never so much as growled at anyone. She was just a dog, but it was almost like I had lost a member of my family.

Pets may be property in the eyes of the law, but my dog was worth so much more.

But I was even more shocked to discover that it was totally legal to kill Ruby simply for chasing a chicken. In Texas, a person can shoot an animal if it’s causing damage to or threatening their property. The protections aren't unique to the Lone Star State: similar laws are on the books across the country, including Washington state, where Salma Hayek's pup, Mozart, was recently killed by a neighbor's pellet gun. The killing of Hayek’s dog was legally justified according to police, as was the killing of my dog, Ruby.

Alan Schwettmann, an animal cruelty specialist with the Austin Police Department, said he's encountered "very few" cases where a homeowner shot a dog or cat on their land in his 10 years with the department. Under the law, he said, there's "a thin line of when you can kill an animal on your own property."

"We take into account a lot of different factors that would differentiate between malice and self-defense," he wrote in an email.

But Diane Balkin, a Denver-based attorney with the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), a nonprofit that provides free support to prosecutors handling animal cruelty cases and seeks to advance the interests of animals through the legal system, says that cases of neighbors killing trespassing pets on their property are more common than many people realize. A lack of recordkeeping makes it difficult to measure the scope of the issue, she said.

“We do not have a snapshot of it and we have not collected statistics,” Balkin said. “They are just now collecting statistics on police who shoot dogs.”

While we may not have a clear understanding of the number of dogs that are killed by neighbors each year, laws across the country paint a pretty grim picture when it comes to the rights of pet owners pursuing legal action against a shooter.

Rebecca Wisch, an associate editor at the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University, found that 45 states allow the killing of dogs that damage property.
Photo: Courtesy of Anna Casey.
“Most of the time, the property in question must be livestock or poultry, but other states seem to give ‘property’ a broad scope,” Wisch told Refinery29 in an email.

Not only is a person not criminally liable for killing an animal that they perceived as a threat to their property, but there’s little recourse for pet owners when it comes to taking private legal action against them. After speaking to an attorney who told me I wouldn't have much of a case, I decided not to press charges.

That's because in the eyes of the court, Ruby, a rescue dog, would likely only be worth what I paid for her. All of the happiness Ruby brought me through her playful personality and adeptness for cuddling wouldn’t mean anything, nor would the emotional distress I experienced from losing her. Pets may be property in the eyes of the law, but my dog was worth so much more.

Balkin, the attorney with ALDF, hopes that Hayek's high-profile experience with this tragic issue will raise awareness about the way animals are treated by the legal system every day.

“Hopefully, at a minimum, this will get the attention of various law enforcement agencies to treat these cases seriously and provide a thorough investigation,” she said.

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