Fairness Quandary In Britain: What To Do With A Dog That Ate His Master?

No photo of Buster is available, but this is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and if this image  fills you with fear and revulsion, you're an idiot, at least when it comes to dogs.

No photo of Buster is available, but this is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and if this image fills you with fear and revulsion, you’re dangerously ignorant, at least when it comes to dogs.

In Waterloo, England last September, a Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Buster (or Butch…he apparently answered to both names, much in the way I answer to my wife when she calls me “Jack” or “You Idiot”…) found himself in a situation reminiscent of the infamous 1972 Andes plane crash that forced its survivors to resort to cannibalism. His master died suddenly, leaving the dog trapped in the apartment without access to sustenance. After an undetermined amount of time and increasing desperation, Buster  decided “Oh, the hell with it” and ate a sufficient amount of his best friend to stay alive..

I know—“Ick.” Buster may well have felt the same way. Once police had made the grisly discovery, however, Buster found himself in big trouble even though he was was in an emaciated state that suggested that he didn’t do this for fun. The police claimed he was a danger to the community, and the deceased’s family made it clear that it wanted Buster to be put down. Dog lovers and animal rights groups insisted that Buster was a victim of circumstance and that absent evidence that he had plotted to convert his live master into a feast, there was no precedent for blaming the victim in such a case.

After all, those passengers who survived in the Andes by eating the bodies of their less-fortunate companions were not executed. They appeared on talk shows.

Why the different attitude? Well, let’s see:

1. Buster is a dog, and dog lives, reasonably, are valued less than human lives by society—human society anyway.

2. He is also a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, a variety of dog that is a victim of “breedism” or dog racism, from people and authorities who know nothing about dogs. This is one of the breeds commonly called a “pit bull,” so there is a presumption of bad character whenever such a dog has an interaction with humans that doesn’t turn out well. If Buster had been a poodle, a Golden Retriever or a cute little French Bulldog, he may have received more sympathy than suspicion.

3. There is an element of vengeance and the need to assert dominance here. Yes, humans and dogs have a long, lovely, cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship, and many analysts have concluded that the canines cannily ended up with the better end of the deal. Nevertheless, humans don’t want dogs to get any funny ideas about who’s really in charge ( as the owner of a Jack Russell Terrier, I can vouch for the wisdom of this), so periodically an example must be made of a dog that crosses a bold line. Did we neglect to articulate the “Do not, under any circumstances, eat your master” rule? Was “Don’t bite the hand the feed you” not sufficient?

4. In a similar vein, there is a visceral sense of fear and betrayal at work here that creates a strong “Ick!” factor. Nobody wants to think that their dog’s loyalty is so pragmatic that it would succumb to mere hunger and desperation. This story destroys idealized images of dogs standing guard over their fallen owners. It dashes illusions. Surely Lassie would never eat Timmy, no matter how hungry she was. If a dead spinster was discovered half eaten by her twenty malnourished cats, nobody would be surprised. We know our cats are just waiting for the opportunity to take over.

5. This is pure speculation, but my wife flagged the point: why was the eaten dog owner undiscovered so long that his pet was forced to chow down on him? If the man was elderly (neither his name nor his age has been revealed), the family may feel guilty about neglecting him, and seizing on the opportunity to make Buster the villain. Grace points out that we both had periods where we had an elderly parent who lived alone, and we called them every day at the very minimum. If we didn’t get an answer, we checked on their safety. Why didn’t this family do that?

Nevertheless, District Judge Wendy Lloyd dismissed the attempts to save Buster, saying the dog was lawfully seized as evidence, and ordered that he be destroyed because he “does constitute a danger to public safety.”

And if she is wrong, meh…it’s only a dog.

Buster’s defenders have not given up, however. Solicitors acting for Freshfields Animal Rescue Centre (That’s Freshfields the international law firm, not the grocery store chain) and the Senior Staffordshire Terrier Club filed an appeal, so there will be another legal hearing. The matter will ultimately be decided on the basis of whether Buster is dangerous or not.

I have my doubts whether either side of the dispute is capable of an objective assessment. In the previous hearing, police showed a video of  a police dog handler “exerting pressure” on Buster by  holding it down and then trying to pick him up. Buster bit him. So would I. As a rebuttal, Buster’s allies argued that he is normally friendly, but has been understandably traumatized by this experience and needs time to recover. A loving and experienced owner could rehabilitate the dog, they argued.

I hope the judge is capable of clearing away all the irrelevancies, “ick” factors, biases and taboos and make a fair and ethical decision.

Good luck, Buster.


Sources: Liverpool Echo, Telegraph, Good Dog Story


19 thoughts on “Fairness Quandary In Britain: What To Do With A Dog That Ate His Master?

  1. Christ, if Buster were in Virginia, he’d be entitled to vote.

    Isn’t there a middle ground here? Probation? Release him to the Staffordshire Terrier Club and see how things go with a good foster person.

      • The point that seems missing is this — Buster didn’t eat a live human being. He ate a corpse. I would hope that the courts would make that differentiation, but I know better.

          • This seems like an example of the increasing imprecision and (d)evolution of the English language. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen “cannibalism” used to mean “eating humans”.
            As an aside, this lack of precision in everyday language is one of my major pet peeves. I’ve seen a lot of complaining about the cheapened state of modern discourse, but should that really come as any surprise when the tools by which we engage in it have become so egregiously blunted?
            And that ignores cases where imprecision/redefinition has been deliberately introduced in order to further a political agenda.

      • The next time he’s locked in with a corpse he’ll eat part of it?Is that a risk? I thought the reason he was unsafe was he bit the policeman who was trying to hold him down.

  2. I hope that Beth is correct. I am inclined to think that #5 is in play. Never underestimate the power of guilt to turn human beings into vengeful monsters. That’s pretty cynical, isn’t it? I guess I’ve seen and read about too many lovely human beings who have no regard for non-human life. It’s not just a case of breedism, but actually speciesism.

  3. I just hope everyone realizes, especially those who know me well, what super-human restraint I had to exercise not to take advantage of the wonderful black humor and sick joke opportunities in this story. I had a riff on Lassie and Timmy that would have been a good post on its own, except not on an ethics site.

    So for anyone offended at the few examples of irreverence that made the cut, all I can offer is Rationalization #22. It could have been worse. Much worse.

    • “Jokes of the proper kind, properly told, can do more to enlighten questions of politics, philosophy, dog-guilt and literature than any number of arguments.”
      ― Isaac. Asimova

  4. I would really have to guess that the only person to whom this should (the eating, not Buster’s fate) be important, Buster’s owner, no longer gives a damn. He’s dead and we have no evidence that Buster killed him.

  5. Well, there was an implicit contract here. Buster’s master was supposed to provide dog food for him and he was unfortunately unable to do because he was dead so he broke the contract. Unfortunately, it will be difficult to find a new home for Buster given his reputation things don’t look good for poor Buster.

    • The problem here is that, as we see on college campuses, implied consent can be amiguous. In the wake of this story, my dog and I have executed mutual consent forms. Whichever of us pops first, after 24 hours it’s “bone” apetit!

  6. I have first-hand experience sharing back-yard space with a dog who had been retired from many years work in Viet Nam being, in the vernacular, “kill-trained,” and proud of it. My landlady, a tough Wisconsin farm woman who sewed burlap bags for a living and still used a wringer-washer on her back porch, had rescued him from the family of his master, a Fort Carson soldier who had died shortly after his own discharge. She had been told that the soldier’s family had been told he routinely kept the dog hungry and rewarded him with letting him chew on his kill and they were going to get rid of him. With the same loving discipline my next-door neighbor had used to raise five loving, disciplined sons, she brought the dog around to be the same, with her daughters-in-law, the grandchildren, including two adopted from Nam, and with me and my ancient, crochety, feisty husky, King (sorry, it was a ‘Sergeant Preston’ joke that stuck).

    So I know re-(or un-)training is possible, at least with a canine already raised to respond to discipline and — presumably — many (other) kinds of rewards.

    More in terms of general empirical evidence – yes, I know Slate can be despicable, but as to origins of behavior, this holds up: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2011/07/would_your_dog_eat_your_dead_body.html

    As for the “Justice” part of it, I will let this story — which I held back from the “A Modest Proposal” post riposte because the student’s arguments held up on their own and this one, an all-too-rare well documented case of what we know to be a more common human condition than we would like to believe would have merely muddied the waters. Drama aside, the main points are taken, including the resolution. From several sources:

    John Connelly, who had been convicted of stealing sheep and sentenced to three months hard labour, since ‘an end should be put to such practices or that no man’s property could be safe’. The sentence prompted a resident magistrate to intervene

    “Mr. Dopping, Resident magistrate, stood up and addressing the Court said, that he felt bound to explain to the Court that he knew of this case. He had been told that the prisoner and his family were starving when this offence had been committed. One of his children had died and he had been credibly informed that the mother ate part of its legs and feet after its death. He had the body exhumed and found that nothing but the bones remained of its legs and feet. A thrill of horror pervaded the court at this announcement. There was deep silence for several minutes, during which time many a tear trickled down the cheeks of those present. Even the court wept.

    The prisoner was instantly discharged.

  7. I own no dogs, but I think that if I were a dog owner, my thought process might go like this: If my dear dog was trapped in my apartment, and no one was nearby to help him, and there was literally nothing I could do because I was dead, and my pet’s only hope for survival was to eat my corpse… well, I’d want him to eat my dead body. It’s a gift of life I can give him from beyond the grave, and besides, I’m not using it. I’m dead! So eat up, boy, and let’s hope that someone finds you before you run out of me to snack on.

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