Korey Johnson of Torrington is heartbroken after a neighbor gunned down his dog, Zeus.
The neighbor says he killed the dog after mistaking it for a coyote that was attacking his chickens. Police say the neighbor will not face charges because of a Connecticut law that allows individuals to use lethal force against a dog when protecting livestock or other domestic animals. But there are those like Johnson who feel the law is antiquated and outdated and reduces a beloved family pet to nothing more than property.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican who represents parts of Fairfield and Southport and described herself as "a big animal advocate," said that the issue of whether or not a person's pet should be afforded more protection than other items of property has always been a controversial one for the legislature, but after hearing about what happened to Zeus and the state law that validated Stock's actions she thought it was one that needed to be addressed again.
"We all know that dogs have a tendency to get out. They're animals," Kupchick said. "Sometimes they get loose and you don't expect your neighbor to shoot them. It does open up a broader discussion about what is your responsibility as a resident of this state if a domestic animal wanders into your yard. The real question is do we think it's okay for someone to kill your dog or cat in their yard for any reason except for being attacked by it?"
In Johnson's case, he was at work on the evening of July 20, 2014, and had left his two-year old Alaskan Malamute Zeus in the care of his family. Zeus was not on a leash and was hanging out with Johnson's family in their Torrington yard when it bolted towards the woods. Johnson's family followed, but couldn't locate Zeus.
About 15 or 20 minutes later a series of shots rang out.
The next morning Johnson's mother found the dog's body in the woods near a neighbor's property line. The dog had been shot five times.
The neighbor, William Stock, told police that he saw the dog around his chicken coop, mistook it for a coyote and opened fire. Stock said he was sorry and didn't mean to shoot a dog, but that he needed to protect his chickens. Stock owned the chickens illegally, since under Torrington zoning laws you need at least three acres of land to raise chickens and Stock's property sits on about an acre. But that was not a factor in the case.
Torrington police said Stock was warranted to shoot the dog under Connecticut law to protect his livestock and will not face charges.
The incident highlights a murky area in Connecticut's laws governing domestic animals and pets that many, including lawmakers and animal control officers, said they found troubling or somewhat vague.
"It's kind of insane to think in this day and age that laws could be so Draconian," Johnson said at his family's West Hill Road home in Torrington on Tuesday. "This dog really was like our child."
Connecticut Statute 22-358 states that "any owner or the agent of any owner of any domestic animal or poultry…may kill any dog which he observes pursuing or worrying any such domestic animal or poultry." The law dates to 1949 and is imprecise. It does not specify that the dog must be on the shooter's property in order to kill it, or even that the shooter has to be protecting his or her own livestock.
There are also exceptions. The same law states that only a police or animal control officer can kill a dog pursuing a deer. An Enfield man, John Lake, was sentenced to a year in prison and three years of probation in 2013 after his 13-year old son shot and killed three beagles they observed chasing deer on a hunting trip.
There are animal cruelty laws on the books in Connecticut that restrict people from killing stray or roaming pets that may wander unto private property or just proving to be a general nuisance, but an individual also has the right to protect himself and his possessions from an aggressive or attacking dog or any other domestic animal. In Connecticut, livestock and domestic animals are considered property.
Annie Hornish, senior state director of the Humane Society of the United state and a former state legislator, said that laws governing domestic animals do have some gray areas. But she says they are sufficent to protect pets against malicious or unwarranted attacks. Hornish said more often than not it comes down to law enforcement officials declining to press charges in such circumstances. "Our cruelty laws are indeed written vaguely," Hornish said. "It gives police great leeway in what they want to prosecute."
Michael P. Foley Jr., a Cheshire-based attorney that specializes in animal and dog laws, said he felt that Stock's actions were justified under the wording of the law even if he, personally, found them extreme.
"I think the statute clearly gave the man the right to shoot that dog if the dog was attacking his chickens," Foley said. "But I don't think I would have done so."
Foley, who often litigates personal injury lawsuits involving loose or unrestrained dogs, said he found the use of the word "worrying" in the statute "somewhat vague" but noted that the entire incident could have been avoided if the dog wasn't wandering. "Essentially, you have to keep your dogs on your own property," Foley said. "They are your responsibility."
State Rep. Craig Miner, a Republican who represents Connecticut's 66th District that includes parts of Litchfield and Bethlehem, said "there is an agrarian basis for the protection of livestock and it goes back a long way," Miner said. "These protections are in place for a reason."
Miner said that the legislature has discussed the issue of domestic animals as property and who can legally euthanize an animal in Connecticut in the past, but that as the trend towards more locally grown food and produce continues to gain popularity incidents like the one that led to Johnson's dog being shot will only continue.
"These kind of conflicts are going to happen," Miner said. "It's a conversation that maybe its time has come."