A dispute between two Estacada, Ore., neighbors turned tragic when 63-year-old Raymond Weaver intentionally ran over his neighbor's dog two years ago. The neighbor's beloved Grizz was so badly injured that doctors were forced to euthanize the 14-year-old Labrador retriever-cocker spaniel mix.
After Weaver was convicted of first-degree animal abuse, Mark Greenup and his family sued their neighbor for $1.6 million, claiming. among other things, loss of companionship.
Though the dollar amount involved in the lawsuit is large, what drew the attention of animal rights groups was that claim could signal a change in the nature of the legal relationship between human and animal.
But Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Eve Miller dashed their hopes that for the first time a court might recognize the emotional bond between people and their pets. Today she rejected the part of the suit that asked the jury to consider Grizz in terms of his worth as a companion as opposed to the current law that considers pets as property.
The judge said that she saw nothing in Oregon law that would allow the Greenups to ask the jury to treat Grizz as anything other than property.
"The Greenups are definitely on edge and emotional," said their attorney Geordie Duckler. "To have a new law dangling between them in establishing this law and have it taken away last minute is very disappointing."
Judge Miller will allow the jury to decide if the family should be paid for punitive damages for emotional distress. Jury selection is currently under way.
Despite the earlier conviction, Weaver maintains Grizz's injury was an accident. His lawyers did not return calls for comment.
Though animal rights experts had hoped for a different outcome, they said they are not surprised by the judge's decision.
"Unfortunately, this is something we see on a regular basis in a variety of ways," ASPCA senior vice president Dr. Randall Lockwood said.
Alison Gianotto, director of PetAbuse.com, said she believes acts of pet abuse retaliation happen because people are pulling away from one another other and making less contact with their neighbors.
"It seems like these days people are far less likely to talk about a problem and more likely to throw a poisonous meatball over the fence," she said.
Her organization has recorded more than 175 cases in which an animal was abused as a form of retaliation, she said. The most common way pets are abused is through shooting and poison.
"That is probably the safest way of remaining anonymous ... it's very easy to get away with," she said.
Anti-freeze is the most commonly used form of poison, which has prompted animal rights activists and lawmakers to push for a bill requiring companies that make anti-freeze to add a bitter taste to the currently sweetly scented chemical, so that pets would not readily consume it.
So what can you do if you are having problems with a neighbor whose pet keeps you awake with its barking or repeatedly leaves little brown presents in your yard?
"Go over and talk with them," Gianotto said. "And if that doesn't work, call animal control."
"The saddest thing about these incidents is they are totally preventable," she said.