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Ethicists debate the moral dilemmas posed by the death of a police dog

"It's good that people in Pittsburgh are talking about animals and what's wrong with the killing of an animal."


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On Jan. 28, John Rush, a 21-year-old man with a criminal record and a reported history of mental illness, fatally stabbed a police dog named Rocco while police were attempting to serve him with warrants for his arrest. In the wake of Rocco's death, Mayor Bill Peduto ordered flags to be flown at half-staff, while the media went into overdrive, and politicians called for harsher penalties for those who seriously harm police animals. But if it's wrong to kill a dog, is it wrong to eat a chicken? Or to put the dog in harm's way in the first place? City Paper asked several prominent animal-rights advocates what they made of the debate. Their responses have been edited for space.

Peter Singer, bioethicist and author of Animal Liberation

It's good that people in Pittsburgh are talking about animals and what's wrong with the killing of an animal. Even if it's certain iconic species like whales or dogs, that's better than saying, "They're only whales, let's let them die."

I can imagine that if police dogs are properly trained, they enjoy their line of work. Obviously we put them at risk, but if we're looking after their interests as well as we can, that may be justifiable.

We should give the same consideration to the interests of an animal as we would give to similar interests of our own. But I do think that our greater ability to reflect on our lives ... makes a difference to our interest in avoiding death. I don't think a dog has as great an interest in avoiding death as we do.

Will Kymlicka, professor of philosophy, Queen's University

Most people know, at the back of their minds, that our society exploits huge numbers of animals on a daily basis, in ways that animal-rights activists describe as cruel, torture, violence and enslavement. And we know that we are complicit in this. Yet people do not want to think of themselves as the kind of person who participates in or supports the abuse of animals.

Cases like Rocco provide an opportunity for average citizens to reaffirm their sense of goodness, of being humane. It's essential to our self-identity to find ways of shifting the mistreatment of animals onto others, like the mentally ill person in this case. The more that animal-rights advocates make people aware of systematic abuse of animals, the more citizens will focus on individual [acts of] abuse as a way of deflecting the issue.

Kenneth Shapiro, president of the board of the Animals and Society Institute

One can argue that the police dog and the police person have a co-project. They work together, train together. ... You [could] accept the dog implicitly agreed to that life, and got the benefits in terms of attention and training. I don't have a problem with that, provided the animal is treated well. We use dogs because they have skills we don't have.

I'm OK with [harsher penalties for harming police dogs] because you could argue that both canines and humans have decided to put themselves at risk. In an instance where a dog is sent in where a human wouldn't be — I disagree with that. We shouldn't put the animal more at risk than a human being.

By and large, the media response is a way of suggesting animals are valuable. But when it Disneyfies and Bambifies, it undercuts its own argument. We need to present [the dog] as the animal as it is, not the animal we've constructed. [T]he chicken we're eating is also a sophisticated animal.

Gary Francione, law professor, Rutgers School of Law-Newark

Everyone who is reading [this] story is discussing it over the dinner table, while eating animals that suffered a much worse death. I'm not in favor of using police dogs or bomb-sniffing dogs — I'm not comfortable using guide dogs [for blind people]. I think there's a problem with domestication as a moral matter: We bring animals into existence that are dependent on us. We control everything about their lives. It encourages our thinking of these animals as commodities, as resources.

I do not think that laws [raising penalties for those who attack police dogs] do anything to increase [the dog's] moral value; they're just legislative responses to public emotion. The reason people are upset about this is there is something much deeper going on that makes us uncomfortable. Eating animals is the 64-million-pound elephant in the room.

Jason Hribal, animal historian

You can say they're heroic, but what are the [police] dogs getting out of it? If the dog really sacrificed his life, other dogs should be compensated. They [should] have a representative within the union that could take on these issues. There should be some money set aside so [dogs] get retirement.

People are looking at Rocco through the relationships they have with their own dogs. These are familial relations. Police and service dogs, however, are workers, and different questions need to be asked.

The penalties [for harming police officers] should be the same regardless of whether they're human or not. If they're a police officer, they're a police officer.


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