Ethics Quiz: The Case of the Human Cat

This is not only an ugly story, but also one that many people are incapable of analyzing dispassionately, or even rationally. I’m going to try.

Michael Puerling is a landlord…some would call him a slum lord…in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.  A tenant in the upper unit of his property had adopted a black and brown stray cat, which she named Sage. Puerling told the woman she couldn’t keep a cat, so she evicted the feline, which eventually took up residence in the vacant lower unit. Puerling discovered the cat had after it had been making itself at home for months, tearing up furniture and generally making the apartment a giant litter box. According to the landlord, he opened the doors and windows and tried to get Sage to leave, but the cat hid under the kitchen sink. Then Puerling tried to remove the cat by hand…not a good idea, as any cat owner could have told him. When he couldn’t grab the scruff of Sage’s neck, he yanked the cat out by his tail, with the predictable result–the cat went crazy, and attacked him.

So Puerling bashed the Sage’s head in by swinging him by his tail against a slab of concrete outside.

A neighborhood boy, 11-years-old, witnessed the execution, and reported it to police. Puerling was charged with felony animal abuse, and pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors. He apologized in court and said he would accept any sentence. I think it is fair to say that he didn’t expect the sentence he got, for the judge didn’t just throw the book at him, but the entire library.

Circuit Judge David Hansher doubled the sentence recommended by the prosecutor, and sent him to jail for six months, saying, “It’s abhorrent and repulsive what you did. I’d rather have an armed robber in front of me than someone like you….The cat is a living human animal and doesn’t deserve to be basically murdered, which is what happened in this case.” In addition to the jail time, Puerling will have an additional 9 months hanging over his head if he violates terms of a two-year probation, which includes not keeping a pet and staying away from other people’s pets.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Was the judge’s sentence fair?

A brief perusal of the comments to the story on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website shows what controversial territory this is. A sample:

COMMENT: “Cats eradicate native species. If people “love” their cats they would keep them in the house or get them declawed at the minimum.
The thing this guy did wrong was his method….”

REPLY: “I HOPE AND PRAY one day very soon that you suffer and die very painfully with your thought process on innocent animals. It should be the careless owners (humans? that are blamed and threatened for causing the problem in the first place!!”

REPLY: “Cats are not innocent by any definition of the word. The sparrows, blue jays, moles, rabbits, etc that they kill for fun ARE innocent.
 Do you “HOPE AND PRAY one day soon that cats suffer and die very painfully with their ACTUAL KILLING of innocent animals?”

COMMENT: “…He was either too stupid, too lazy, or both to remove the animal the right way. What kind of idiot grabs a stray cat and what did he think was going to happen? The cheap sob could’ve called animal control….If he’d have let the tenant keep the cat this would have never happened. The guy has anger/temper issues and I guarantee you this isn’t the first time he’s been violent. Animals feel pain the same as humans so anyone who is ok with what happened or thinks it’s funny shouldn’t have kids or a spouse because they have no empathy or ability to understand other living things and will never be able to maintain a stable relationship.

“I hope he gets raped in prison.”

There appear to be three kinds of people: those with what my wife calls “the animal gene,” who empathize, sympathize and love animals, often to excess; those whose reaction to someone having to put her dog down is, whether they express it or not, “Big deal. It’s just a dog!”…and those who think the first group is a little strange and that the second group consists of potential serial killers. The challenge with the Wisconsin case is to find some mode of analysis that gets the animal worshipers, the “animal deaths aren’t worth getting upset over” crowd and the middle group to agree on what is fair, and I don’t think it can be done. The groups don’t share the same assumptions, and never will.

I’m in the middle group, though much closer to the animal worshipers than the other extreme. As I write this, Rugby, my sweet Jack Russell terrier, is asleep by my keyboard.  Nevertheless, I think the judge’s sentence is unfair, and can’t be defended rationally.

The landlord was guilty of animal cruelty, and deserved punishment, but he did not torture the cat for fun, nor set out to hurt it. After several months living outside, Sage qualified as a feral cat, not a pet, and they shoot feral cats, because they are essentially small, but still dangerous, tigers. Puerling had a little tiger by the tail, and it was biting and scratching him: he reacted angrily and violently, but in self-defense. It doesn’t make him a danger to the community, or even to other cats.

Of course he was wrong. He should have called Animal Control. It is appropriate for the justice system to send a clear message that his conduct was cruel and irresponsible, and a stiff fine along with a reasonable suspended sentence would do the job. But six months in jail and probation? I think that’s irrational in a country where we poison mice and rats without a thought, gas thousands of stray dogs every day, shoot deer, moose and elk, eat slaughtered pigs, chickens, cattle and lambs, confine intelligent primates in glass cages and make intelligent aquatic mammals do tricks at Sea World,  put elephants in the circus, and generally pick and choose which creatures have special immunity from human mistreatment according to arbitrary standards of cuteness and sentimentality.

I think the judge’s use of the term “human animal” is instructive but batty, and that his sentence is clearly unfair and out of proportion to the crime.

I now await the assault of PETA members.

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Case of the Human Cat

  1. Yes,he should have called animal control and yes he was wrong but thanks to evolution humans are reduced to vermin,especially fetuses, and animals are given god-like status. I think he deserves punishment but that judge is a loon as are the people who hope the guy is tortured to death. I wonder if they ever felt about the crushing of a fetus’ skull in the same way as they do about the cat’s. I know,abortion isn’t at issue here but it still amazes me the attitude that some people will take. The death of anything should never be taken lightly but as much as I love animals they’re lives are not of equal value.

  2. How do I put this? My toy poodle is laying here beside me. He not feeling well, so I won’t leave him alone. My five cats are somewhere, no wait, there are now six. I finally coaxed the one I’ve been feeding to move indoors. The 12 year old tabby I rescued is becoming senile. I spent my evenings coaxing babyfood into her.

    That sets the picture.

    The guy was a jerk. He could have responded differently. The child is traumatized. As much as I consider the creatures around me my “children”, they are not human. I swear they are better than most humans, but that is another story. Animal control traps feral cats all the time. The judge, well, I suspect my toy poodle is smarter.

    When I read this, I found myself wondering what this judge would do for a child abuse case? Would the judge even bother?

    The Pink Flamingo

  3. I have nothing to add to this except that when PETA comes rolling in, I’ve got your back, Jack.

    I read the first half of this article, thought about it before continuing, and then found that I came to the exact same conclusions you did for the exact same reasons. I guess all those years of reading Ethics Alarms (and the Scoreboard) are starting to sink in!


  4. I would buy the self-defense argument if the man immediately started swinging the cat against the fridge or kitchen cabinets. But the fact that he held on to a vicious, attacking animal until he got out of doors shows ME he was acting out of anger and vengeance. Yes, the sentence is probably excessive but this man is no saint.

  5. I agree with your analysis on this Jack. Six months is not defensible with the facts available, any incarceration seems too harsh.

    I am curious though, how do you find the descriptionI agree with your analysis on this Jack. Six months is not defensible with the facts available, any incarceration seems too harsh.

    I am curious though, how you find the statement, “the cat is a living human animal” instructive? Just sounds batty to me.

    • Instructive, in the sense that it instructs us how the judge was thinking and how he may have reached the result. I think he was making the distinction between “human animals” as animals that have relationships with human beings involving love and trust, as opposed to “food animals” and “animal animals” like rats and Grizzly bears. I’m assuming he didn’t mean “Island of Dr. Moreau” human animals, but you never know.

  6. I have to think that anything more than 30 days in jail is too harsh…(but maybe the prosecutor was thinking that too using a good behavior formula…)

    …not that I think it’s too harsh…just unproductive past 30 days. At the end of the day, as a populace, we have to pay to house and feed those who we feel are too dangerous to walk among us. For everyone else, they need to be educated or deterred, and if it’s the latter, there has to be a more cost effective way.

  7. Jack – I agree with everything you wrote, and need to point out the rather obvious flaw in the “justice” system “at work” here in the USA … this idiot was sentenced to 6 MONTHS in jail for killing a feral cat. The Nevada school teacher who sexually assaulted many teenagers was sentenced to 60 DAYS in jail. Who is vetting/appointing these judges?!!!

  8. “Human animal”? The man reacted against an attack by a feral animal who was befouling his property and might well have been carrying a deadly disease. As for calling Animal Control… have you ever tried doing that these days? They demand that YOU capture the beast before they take it away! His best procedure would likely have been to dust it with a varmint rifle and bury it out back. Of course, considering the quality of the judge, this town probably has weird laws that would have sent him to jail for firearms possession!

  9. When will pet owners finally get that they have to spay and neuter? Cats don’t just fall from the sky. I think it is tragic for the cat and the boy but unless Wisconsin is good about sentencing child abusers appropriately, it sounds way extreme. I know for a fact you can abuse a child here and not end up in jail for 6 days never mind 6 months and it is the same thing – abuse of one that is not matched in strength, size or intellect. I don’t agree with the self-defense argument though. Considering he attacked first and the cat was responding, only the cat could claim self-defense. Not that it matters to the question.

  10. I know Mike personally and he would never hurt a pet!!! This was a stray you know how many people run over animals—cats dogs squirrels—should they be tried the same? Look at wild farm cats they get hit by cars on purpose because they are a nuisance. If you ask me, he did nothing wrong. He even called animal control asking them to help, but they denied him unless he had the cat contained in a box. What was he supposed to do when it attacked him?

    • As you know from reading the article, I agree that his punishment was excessive. Your opening is disturbing, however. Anyone who kills cats, dogs or squirrels, strays of not, intentionally should be prosecuted….and watched carefully, because killing animals without reason is often the mark of a psychopath.

      • “I think it was self-defense combined with “now that I’ve got this thing, I better take care of the problem because if I drop it, I’ll have to start all over again.”
        In my opinion,the cat was acting in self defense but I agree,Jack. People who kill animals without reason are psycho.

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