Sunday, November 21, 2004

"Dog Bites Man"

After years of being told that it does not make for a compelling headline, I’ve finally come across an article entitled “Dog Bites Man”. Jon Katz’s wonderful piece is about a dog called Spice. Spice was “a sweetheart, gentle with kids, the best pal of my border collies, generous with her toys and snacks, happy to play tug of war and chase endlessly across suburban lawns.” Spice was also “a 3-year-old mix of pit bull, Labrador retreiver, and probably a few other breeds” that was rescued out of an animal shelter, which in turn had found it “on the street, half-starved and beaten”. Spice belonged to Jon’s friend Jan.

Then, one day, when Spice and Jan were walking in a park, this happened:

… [A] Pekingese slipped out of its collar and dashed toward Spice and Jan, growling and barking. Spice, startled, almost reflexively grabbed the dog's head in her mouth, bit down, and hung on. Neither Jan nor a horrified dog owner passing by could get Spice to loosen her grip. The smaller dog yelped, then went still. The Peke's owner, a woman in her 60s strolling with her 5-year-old grandson, screamed and rushed up to intervene. Spice had always been friendly and reliable around children, but now she was aroused, almost frantic. People were shouting. The boy cried and screamed in fear.

It all happened in a few seconds. Spice bit both the woman, who required 30 stitches in her arm, and the child, who after surgery still had small but permanent facial scars and most likely some psychological ones. The animal-control authorities seized the dog. Local ordinances meant near-certain euthanasia.

Jan went to court to save Spice, and asked Jon for a testimonial saying that Spice was a gentle dog, and should be spared. Jon agonised over this, and came to the conclusion that even though Spice’s reactions were natural and understandable, the rights of the victims counted for more. Spice was euthanized.

The choice Jon faced was between justice and mercy: justice for the victim and mercy towards the perpetrator. It is a choice all of us face everyday, in different ways, in both the private and the public spheres. Indeed, our attitude towards it in the public sphere is one of the enduring faultlines between liberals and conservatives – as on the issue of the death penalty. Both sides have reasonable arguments, and an honourable motive.

Which side are you on?

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