It was Sunday morning, and Red Pepper Vance, a 3-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever, had just had a bath. His people, Neal Vance and Mary Cunningham, let him out to play with their other dog, Beau, on their unfenced acres in Dardenne Prairie, an unincorporated area near Lake St. Louis. When it was time for church, they called.
Only one dog came back.
When Cunningham asked, "Where's Red?" Beau took her immediately, Lassie-style, to the neighbor's house. She walked around the outside, thinking Red might have gone over to play with their puppy, who's kept tied up on their porch with the door ajar. She remembers having heard two gunshots, but no barking. About a half-hour later, she and Vance returned to the neighbor's house and knocked on the front door. When they asked if she'd seen their dog, she said, "I just shot a dog." They went around the back and saw Red lying dead at the bottom of the steps, two bullet holes in the center of his chest.
According to the civil report taken Jan. 17 by the St. Charles County Sheriff's Department, Red must have come inside the open door to play with the puppy. The neighbor found him in her mudroom and yelled at him to leave. He went outside; she went to get one of her guns. When she opened the porch door, gun in hand, to make sure the dog had left, she says he was at the bottom of the porch steps, walking away. She yelled again. According to her, he turned, growled and barked, and began to walk toward her in an aggressive way.
"He might have licked her to death," snorts Cunningham. "Last year he got hit by a car, and he never even whimpered, just licked me while I held him." The veterinary surgical specialist who treated him, Dr. Mary Jean Gorse, remembers Red as "a love. The car had hit, then dragged him, shearing off part of the ankle bone and ligament. But we could change bandages on his open wounds without having to sedate him at all. He was completely nonaggressive."
The neighbor told police she didn't recognize Red, although she did remember Vance coming around a month earlier, telling all his neighbors that if his dogs ever bothered them, they should "kick them in the ass and send them home." But seeing a big brown dog in her mudroom had terrified her past reason, not only for her own safety but for her 3-year-old son's.
Cunningham isn't convinced the 3-year-old was in danger; when he came outside and saw Red lying on the ground, she heard him say, "Mommy! Puppy!"
It's true, Red was trespassing, and he wasn't wearing his collar or his usual bandanna. He'd had that bath. "But her dogs have been on my property several times!" bursts Cunningham. "I didn't pull out a gun and shoot them!"
If they'd growled, she could have. In Missouri, it is legal to shoot an animal if the animal appears to be threatening or attacking either a person or a person's livestock or property. If you want to prosecute the killing as a crime, your only recourse is to do the impossible -- prove the shooter didn't really feel threatened -- or have an eyewitness. Otherwise, your only option is a civil suit for "property damage."
Vance and Cunningham are still hoping St. Charles County will investigate and prosecute. Meanwhile, they have had Red cremated and will sprinkle his ashes in the lake where he learned to water-ski.
If there were cemeteries for this purpose, they'd be full.
Christine Horton, who coordinates rescues and investigations for the Humane Society of Missouri, says she hears constantly from people whose companion animal has been killed. "Next to animals starving, it's the most frequent type of call." They've actually investigated 43 dog shootings in the past three years because there was reason to think cruelty could be proven. But "that's not counting all the calls (like Vance's) where I said, 'I'm sorry, there is nothing that can be done.'"
Just how common is dog-killing? Jeanne McVey, director of education for the Animal Legal Defense Fund, picks up the phone and hears "My neighbor shot my dog" at least six times a week.
"Happens all the time," agrees Daphna Nachminovitch, cruelty caseworker at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va. "We have a caseworker who takes all the 'a neighbor shot or poisoned my dog' calls. It's so important to keep your animals supervised," she adds passionately, "because this does happen, and it's wrong for it to happen. We get at least one call every day, and, unfortunately, most times there is nothing people can do."
Conventional wisdom says people treat animals more casually in rural areas, where many grow up believing that if a stray comes on your property, you shoot him. But Horton's afraid the only real difference is that it's still illegal to discharge a firearm in the city. "If that was not the case, we'd probably see more of this."
John Carpenter, deputy director of St. Charles County Division of Humane Services (animal control), says the problem is definitely worse in rural counties without animal-control services. "People won't tolerate strays around their homes or livestock." They respond to thousands of calls for St. Charles County, though, and have for more than 20 years. "I don't recommend anybody take it upon themselves to resolve a nuisance problem by shooting a dog.