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Old Yeller, Lad and the Commonwealth of Kentucky: Shoot the dog?

Kentucky is given the lowest marks of the 50 states in protective animal laws.
Kentucky is given the lowest marks of the 50 states in protective animal laws.
Daviess County Sheriff’s Office

The conversation on TriState reveals the duality of the conversations about what one writer called, a "heinous act." Which act--the act of shooting a dog or the act of an unsuccessful attempt at euthanasia? This is 2014, much has changed since the 1860s when the movie "Old Yeller" was set. (For Part I of this article)

For some gun euthanasia is something out of the old frontier, a time before telephones and cars. A time when people couldn't vaccinate for rabies or when footloose and near homeless men like "Of Mice and Men" might need a mercy killing. Yet a recent report from the Humane Society shows this isn't so. According to the Humane Society "101 Puppy Mills: A Sampling of Problem Puppy Mills in the United States," four breeders "listed gunshot as a method of euthanasia on their official veterinary plans (Barker in AR; Mamma's Minis in Co; Tietz and Williams in NE)."

The reason for euthanasia was also questionable. According to the report, one breeder euthanized five dogs instead of providing them with a warmer shelter. In other cases, exposure to extreme heat or extreme cold resulted in deaths of dogs.

An article in the Columbia Missourian noted another breeder who "admitted she routinely relied on gunshot...as a form of euthanasia because it was the 'cheaper option.'"

Elsewhere online, there are serious discussions about gun euthanasia, particularly among sportsmen. On Field and Stream, the question is "Your dog is very old and sick and you know it's time to have him put to sleep. Do you do it yourself or take the dog to the vet?" The question was asked a little over five years ago and various reasons are given for gun euthanasia.

As one writer, Bella, wrote: "...Yes it is emotionally difficult to euthanize (shoot) your own sick or injured animal, but what is the choice if the vet wouln't come and you can't pay him anyway. Sometimes you just have to butch up and do it, for the sake of a nonhuman friend. At any rate since veterinary care has become driven by economics (the dismal science) the economics is this 2 cents for a .22 round versus something north of 80 bucks. That 80 bucks will sure buy a lot of feed for the living critters, not to mention the gas to drive the critter to the vet. At the Vet's the bodies get frozen in a freezer till they get incinerated. On the farm you dig a hole and get to pick out a nice big rock if the animal was that memorable. The vet will give you back the dog collar. I've had to do the math mor'n once and I know how the cards fell.
There was that choice of a two cent dead billygoat or an eight hundred dollar dead billygoat. That was an easy choice!"

On person had been doing it for himself for 30 years. Another tried it once and wrote "still feel bad about it. Now I take them to the vet. It is a real sad event and there is no amount of money that makes me want to make it sadder."

A similar conversation was featured on "OutdoorLife.com" in 2009. In the article, he described a friend who had just put down his dog "with respect and honesty." The man told the writer, "She's my dog. Why would I have someone else kill her?"

On commenter wrote, "Done it in the past and probally will have to do it again in the future.Its over $200 to put a Lab sized dog down at the vet now.Im not an overly cheap individual but that is too expensive in my opinion...I am very fond of a good dog and have never taken any joy in ending any of my pets lives."

Another wrote, "The two of you spend countless number of years hunting together, the memories you make with them. It is a mere sign of respect, to do it yourself."

On person mentioned the legal aspects writing, "In some places, the animal cruelty laws include euthanizing an animal, so only a vet or a shelter can do it. To me, that's crazy--it should be a personal choice."

Under American law, dogs are property. Property laws pertaining to dogs vary from community to community and from state to state. According to the American Humane Society, in Kentucky, "euthanasia must be humane and should follow the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia's latest report on acceptable methods for euthanasia for each species." Gunshot euthanasia "shall not be used in animal shelters" but "can be used by peace officers" under certain circumstances. Neither code indicates that gunshot euthanasia is prohibited for owners nor sets down a penalty.

Although there are acceptable methods, there is no training for privates citizens to learn the proper methods nor is there any training required for people to legally own guns.

Maine requires that "An owner of a dog or cat may kill that dog or cat with a gun so long as they are 18, using a weapon that will require only a single shot, they cause instant death, and the animal is not restrained in such a way to cause undue suffering."

In conversations on TriState, the problem wasn't gun euthanasia. It was the incompetency of the act.

While activists online seem to want better animal protection laws, states laws vary. The Animal Legal Defense Fund ranks the states based on their laws in 2013. Arizona was the most improved. Illinois is ranked the best. Kentucky is ranked the worst.

The top five states are:

  1. Illinois
  2. Oregon
  3. Michigan
  4. Maine
  5. California

The worst states are:

  1. Wyoming
  2. New Mexico
  3. South Dakota
  4. Iowa
  5. Kentucky.

The specific reasons that Kentucky ranks so low are:

  • Felony provisions available only for cruelty and fighting, both against only select animals
  • No felony provisions for neglect or abandonment
  • Inadequate definitions/standards of basic care
  • No increased penalties when abuse is committed in the presence of a minor or involved multiple animals
  • No mental health evaluations or counseling for offenders
  • No statutory authority to allow protective orders to include animals
  • No cost mitigation or recovery provisions for impounded animals
  • No court-ordered forfeiture provisions
  • No restrictions on future ownership or possession of animals following a conviction
  • No provisions for select non-animal-related agencies/professionals to report suspected animal abuse
  • Veterinarians are prohibited from reporting suspected cruelty of fighting
  • Humane officers lack broad law enforcement authority
  • No provisions for sexual assault
  • Inadequate animal fighting provisions

Until the passing of Romeo's Law, the torture of a dog or cat was not a felony in Kentucky if it was the first offense. Romeo's Law is named after a Yellow Lab dog that was owned by a Pulaski County man who was caught beating the dog on videotape. The law made the crime punishable with a sentence of 1-5 years in prison and was passed in 2008.

The first case tried under Romeo's Law involved the stabbing death of two cats by Russell Andrew Swigart of Highland Heights in Northern Kentucky. Swigart received a 12 year sentence after being found guilty of two counts of torture of a dog and one-count of second degree burglary.

Yet the problem may be with either the Kentucky culture or just apathy. As one person commented on the Animal Legal Defense Fund website under the "Crime & Punishment in Kentucky" 2009 blog entry: "Bath County Kentucky just had a horrible case of abuse where a Golden Retriever was shot and hung with a logging chain from a John Deere tractor. The poor dog was then displayed on a road that was traveled by school busses for all to see. The killer will not be prosecuted because of our archaic, insane and inept laws and our lawmakers who refuse to do anything. I am a resident of Bath County and out of 11,000 plus people, I have had exactly 3 offers of help. The support and outrage has come from OUT of the County and mostly from OUT of the State."

Laws won't change unless the people want it to, but it would be wrong to paint all the people of Kentucky as insensitive. In 2009, there were a handful of people who were concerned in Bath County. It's hard to discern how many people on the various Lad-related pages are from Kentucky. Obviously, not all the people in Owensboro agree with what happened to Lad. State legislators and local municipal representatives are supposed to work for the populations they represent.

Will Romeo's Law be followed by a Lad's Law? That remains to be seen. Whipping up an international audience may backfire, particularly if there are threats of violence against the Matthew Beauchamp.

On a national level, there is also no legal agreement nor personal consensus on gun euthanasia. People might even be unaware of the legal constraints of gun euthanasia and how it varies from state to state. That means that nationally, there is no agreement on what is a heinous act--the use of a gun for euthanasia or the botching of a job and if less expensive veterinary options might decrease the choice of a gun.

In both cases--changing state laws or changing attitudes toward gun euthanasia, may be a matter of doing the math: How many people want changes made and how much something costs.