Just a Dog
The judge summarily dismissed the egregious case of animal cruelty against
Willa, despite strong evidence that the dog was hideously beaten with base-
ball bats. People standing near the bench heard the judge glibly mumbling,
“It’s just a dog …” as he moved on to a “more important case,” a liquor store
“B & E.” The humane law enforcement agents who prosecuted Willa’s case felt
a surge of anger and frustration, seeing their effort go nowhere. The abusers
disappeared quickly from the courtroom, still puzzled about why such a “big
stink” was made over a dog. At the local humane society, the staff soon got
the disappointing news that Willa’s abusers walked away scot-free but found
much to celebrate that made them feel good about their work—the dog’s
abusers at least had their day in court, a dedicated and highly skilled veteri-
nary staff saved Willa from death, and an employee adopted her.
—Author’s field notes, June 1996
I OBSERVED THE ANIMAL CRUELTY case against Willa in court and overheard disappointed humane agents, who had hoped for a different result, retell the events days later. Two youths brutally beat the dog after accepting the owner’s offer of a few dollars to kill her because she urinated in his house. As the beating went on, an off-duty police officer drove by and intervened. Although it seemed as strong as any such case could be, it was dismissed. Like many other cruelty incidents presented before judges, the victim’s advocates were let down and the defendants were relieved (Arluke and Luke 1997).
As a sociologist I was more concerned about the process that led up to the dismissal than the outcome itself. To study this process, I asked what the case meant to those present, as it unfolded in the courtroom, and I found that it had many different and conflicting meanings to the humane agents, the defendants, the humane society staff, and the reporters.
For the humane agents, the case represented their best investigative work and had the potential to validate their mission, if a guilty verdict were won. They felt their case was solid—the victim was a dog with