A Landmark Case for the Legal Rights of Dogs?

The legal rights of dogs may have been changed by a trial for cat-slaughter.

Posted Mar 11, 2015

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

What rights does a dog have if criminal charges are brought against him? A colleague of mine who is a political historian invited me out for a cup of coffee and promised to show me something "interesting". When we met he placed a file folder in front of me that contained a series of newspaper clippings dated from December 21, 1921 through January 18, 1922. He assured me that these described a court case, which, following the usual legal practice of ruling in accord with precedents from earlier court decisions, could serve to redefine the rights of all dogs brought before the law.

The trial took place on December 21, 1921 in San Francisco. It was held in the courtroom of Judge Lile T. Jacks, and the defendant was an Airedale Terrier named Dormie. He was alleged to have committed the cold-blooded murder of 14 cats, although the specific charge that triggered the trial grew out of the death of one "Sunbeam", a Persian-Angora cat owned by Marjorie Ingals. The court case came about because a San Francisco ordinance declared that both the dog and master share the guilt when a dog is declared dangerous or vicious. Under this law the owner may escape with a fine, however the consequences for the dog were more severe. The prosecutor in this case, none other than an Assistant District Attorney named John Orcutt, had already demanded the death penalty for Dormie.

There was some suspicion that the charges may have been motivated by the fact that Dormie's owner, Eaton McMillan, was a wealthy automobile dealer whose lifestyle engendered some envy from his neighbors. Charged with a misdemeanor under the act, McMillan contended that having gotten a dog license (which at that time allowed a dog to run free) he should not be held responsible for the dog's anti-cat instincts. He further swore that at no time did he ever direct the dog to pursue cats. When McMillan was told that his dog was facing the death penalty for cat-slaughter under this law, he hired attorney James F. Brennan as Dormie's defense counsel. Apparently Brennan's demand for a jury trial came as a complete surprise to the prosecution which had not anticipated such a serious turn for the proceedings.

During the trial the defense attorney challenged Mrs. Ingal's identification of Dormie as the culprit. One by one he had dogs brought into the court, including Rags, Dormie's brother, three other Airedales, a Russian wolfhound, a water spaniel and a mastiff—all dogs from the neighborhood. Mrs. Ingal finally identified Dormie when he came into court, however that identification was ultimately set aside since Dormie was the only dog led into the courtroom by a uniformed police officer.

The proceedings during the trial occasionally took on the flavor of a farce, such as when the defense called as a character witness an Airedale named Rowdy, who was the brother of the Laddie, the pet of the current President Warren G Harding. To show that Airedales do not harbor an instinctive grudge against cats it was pointed out that Rowdy was the personal bodyguard of "Mary Ann" a Persian cat for a long period of time, and when Mary Ann died from entirely natural causes, Rowdy fasted for eight days in grief.

Outside of the courtroom the case was also creating a stir. It became well known that Dormie was considered to be the friendly pet of many of the neighborhood youngsters. These children gathered together to contribute their pennies to his defense fund and had been sending him tidbits and fine bones to keep him happy during his incarceration.

In the end the jury could not reach a unanimous decision with 11 jurors voting for acquittal and one juror holding out for the death penalty. Following this hung jury, on December 28, 1921 the defense attorney filed a motion for dismissal. In response Judge Jacks not only granted that motion but declared that the San Francisco ordinance which put Dormie on trial for his life, was contrary to the Constitution of the state of California "in that it violates the inherent rights of dogs, be they pedigreed Airedales or nondescript mongrels." He explained that according to the law of the time, a licensed dog has the right to roam free, and unlicensed domestic animals, such as cats, do not have such freedom to be outside on their own. Thus if a wandering cat should cross the path of a free-roaming dog the responsibility for the outcome was the cat's. One newspaper reported that Dormie was in the courtroom for this final judgment. It is noted that he wagged his tail gratefully and when the police officer unleashed him he immediately trotted across the room and leaped into the fond embrace of Jack McMillan, aged 2, who was his "true master."

My colleague waited until I had reviewed all of the press clippings and then went on to declare that in his opinion a number of legal rights for dogs had been clearly established by this precedent setting case. He listed them as follows:

1) A dog can have a trial by jury.

2) A dog can demand to be identified as the specific dog in any designated violation, such as a cat killing.

3) The constitutionality of an ordinance which places a dog's life in jeopardy can be attacked on behalf of the dog.

4) A dog can claim discrimination and can plead that there is one law for the rich man's dog and another for the poor man's.

5) A dog can summon character witnesses to testify as to his general reputation and temperament.

6) A dog can claim that a cat has no rights under the law since in Dormie's case it was shown that licensed dogs may roam freely and that cats and other domestic animals must be kept in an enclosure. In this instance the argument was had the deceased cat been so kept Dormie could not have attacked her and the peace of the neighborhood would have been maintained.

I am not a legal expert but I do recognize that times and attitudes have changed since 1921. In addition the laws and ordinances pertaining to dogs do vary from one jurisdiction to another. Still it is interesting to look back at a case like this and wonder if such a trial could take place today, and whether the outcome of Dormie's trial might not be invoked in a contemporary trial as a precedent for determining a dog's legal rights.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

More Posts