Ethics Quiz: The Dog-Poisoners [UPDATED]

This is, I know, a poor topic for Christmas, but it just came down the chimney.

While shopping yesterday, we encountered a man who lived in the neighborhood. Rugby had enjoyed conversing with the two dogs owned by the man and his wife, two friendly, lively min-pins. As shoppers bustled around us, our neighbor announced that he was more our neighbor than ever: he and his wife had moved from where I had met them to a home less than a block away from ours, on the long street that our cul de sac opens onto. The reason for the move: their next-door neighbor had poisoned their dogs. One had survived.

Our neighbor said that they had called the police, who investigated. Based on motive (the there had been a property dispute, and the resulting law suit had gone our friends’ way), opportunity, and the demeanor and comments the police got while questioning the suspects as well as accounts about their threats and general sociopathic tendencies from others on the street, the police reported that they were pretty sure my neighbors’ neighbor were the culprits, but that they did not have sufficient evidence to make an arrest.

This story had unpleasant resonations for me. My Dad, when he was a 10 year-old only child being raised by a single mother during the depression and having to move to new neighborhoods constantly, owned a large, loyal Airedale named Bumbo. One day someone put ground glass in his beloved dog’s food dish, and my father had to see his best friend die in agony in his arms. It was one of the great tragedies of his life. His mother was certain who had killed the dog, but again, there was insufficient proof.

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day:

Is my neighbor obligated to tell anyone who is interested in renting or buying his now-abandoned property that the neighbor poisoned his dogs?

This is a little bit like the murder house/haunted house issue—you know, like when you are trying to sell the house in “The Amityville Horror,” or where you were visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve*—but with a material difference. In those disclosure dilemmas, the potential danger is speculative at most, merely ick at worst. Not here: anyone who would poison a dog is a genuine monster. However, the law is a problem: absent proof, accusing someone of a crime is per se slander, especially when the crime is as ugly as this one. Yet persuading someone to move next to a human being capable of such an act seems itself criminal. (You will find a related essay here that does not involve selling or renting a house.)

What would you do? I’m stumped, but then the thousand fir needle pricks may have become infected and are affecting my brain.

*I hope you appreciate how I can work Christmas into any topic these days…

UPDATE: Apparently some have not seen the many references to Rugby here. This is Rugby, who is a 15-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, still going strong:


50 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Dog-Poisoners [UPDATED]

  1. If the issue was a property dispute, the same issue may very well come up with new neighbors, even ones without dogs. Someone who would poison a dog in retaliation is likely to do all kinds of things.

    Of course, I’m a dog owner, too, so I’m not really objective here.

    But, what are the legalities of telling a potential new neighbor to watch out for the sociopath next door?

  2. Seems to me that even if the suspected neighbors WEREN’T the culprits, somebody was, and that somebody most likely lives in the neighborhood. Therefore I think it reasonable that the former residents tell the new residents to keep any animals they have should be kept indoors because someone (they can’t be sure who) in the neighborhood has harmed pets. If the suspects are as bad as the reports make it, the new residents will likely figure out who specifically to beware of soon enough. Otherwise, I think the former residents would be better off not immediately poisoning (no pun intended) someone’s rep for someone who hasn’t met the person in question, and worse, have them looking the wrong way for danger.

  3. Is my neighbor obligated to tell anyone who is interested in renting or buying his now-abandoned property that the neighbor poisoned his dogs?

    In the more substantial case of a buyer of his house, the revelation that there is a bad neighbor living next door would scare off many buyers. Few would want to buy-in to a long term arrangement with a problematical neighbor.

    In the case of renters who had dogs he would be obligated to tell them that his dog had been poisoned. But he could opt to rent the house with a no pets rule.

    It is not impossible that by bringing a lawsuit against the neighbor that he made a bad choice. I suppose one could ask if it was the best decision. How could he not have known that doing so would create long-term animosities? (But he may have had no other option if whatever the neighbor had been doing affected the value of his property).

    If this is so then he shares a certain responsibility in creating the situation. Therefore, he might have to accept that he contributed to the situation he now has to live with. And he is stuck within the ethical problem that he contributed to.

    Since he prevailed he likely had good cause for his lawsuit. His error may have been a social misstep though. And on an inner level he likely does have a connection to and a responsibility for this situation. And is now having to live the consequences of it.

    But, what are the legalities of telling a potential new neighbor to watch out for the sociopath next door?

    Since he does not know, in any absolute sense, that the neighbor did it, in fact he has an excuse not to say anything at all. A lawyer would advise him (I guess) to avoid saying anything.

  4. … where you were visited by four ghosts on Christmas Eve …

    That can’t be Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol; in that story he was visited by at least six (I count at least two more besides Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, the Ghost of Christmas Present and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, and I may have missed others).

    • Actually, there was only one ghost, that of Jacob Marley. The rest were technically “spirits.” Now, we’re getting close to a subject for a poll . . . .

      • Actually, in the language of that time and place, “spirit” is just precisely what “ghost” meant (like the German “Geist”, or the “Holy Ghost” in prayer books and older biblical translations), which is why Dickens used it of the three Christmas personifications, and why I applied it to the concealed boy and girl that attended one of them. Dickens no more used today’s U.S. English than I do, and it would be a misleading misreading to take his work that way.

  5. Technically you have no legal obligation because it does not specifically relate to the home itself. I would caution any prospects with pets to be aware that they should keep them away from the neighbor without going into specifics.

    • Depends on what you mean by “home”. The situation doesn’t directly affect the structure (although you could imagine that such people might also be capable of arson or vandalism), but location, and all its attributes, does most definitely affect the total property value

      • I disagree, Chris. I think the property dispute and the dog poisoning would need to be placed on the disclosure statement most realtors (Arizona does) require sellers to fill out to cover the realtors’ asses. So it’s not only an ethical obligation, it’s a legal one.

        • In Maryland we have similar disclosure forms. If their is a property dispute that can be settled with a survey. Civil litigation that does not affect the property is not subject to disclosure.

          Dont get me wrong, I would love to know that my neighbor might be a nut. I have many pets and if I had one poisoned I would be furious to the point I might wind up in jail.

          Where does one draw the line regarding unrelated person’s behavior; especially unproven behavior. Should a grouch that hates children who lives nearby be disclosed. If I know a person on the sex offender registry lives 5 doors away, should I be required to disclose that? The problem here is the the suspected behavior of one neighbor is directed at a specific other neighbor based on a squabble of some form. Nothing suggests that the behavior will continue.

        • OB. One might need to disclose the civil litigation if subject to appeal but not necessarily so on the neighbors alleged poisoning.

          If such a disclosure is legally and ethically required because of a neighbors suspected behavior it would be required on all property sales in the cul de sac as the neighbor could theoretically do the same to any persons in the vicinity.

          • Merry Christmas, Chris.

            If I were the listing agent on the sale and had been advised of the situation, I’d want the seller to disclose the litigation and the poisoning on the disclosure statement. But hey, I was a lawyer, you know those people that according to the old realtor’s joke “Want to get a real estate license so they can screw up their own deals?”


      • Mr. Reese, I was speaking directly to the issue of full disclosure of material defects to the property.

        Many external factors affect the value of any given property which is why buyers should perform their own due diligence with respect to the environs that can affect property values. If I know the planning commission has approved a 6 lane highway that will abut to my property I have no obligation to inform the buyer. Conversely, if my basement floods after a light rain I must disclose the issue or I can be subject to liability.

        Many issues are actually proscribed by law such as the number of subsidized rentals in the neighborhood.

        This issue speaks to the ethical obligation someone has to disclose an event that may or may not happen again based on one specific experience with one neighbor who is speculated to have caused harm which in turn will subject the current owner with an unrecoverable economic loss. I dont think one has a duty to inform based on speculation, albeit highly likely, that a neighbor will injur their pets. The presumption of innocence must prevail in our hearts if we are to expect them to prevail in courts of law.

        • I was probably not clear enough in my reply. I meant only to address the “…it does not specifically relate to the home itself.” portion of your comment.

          If I really wanted to get into the weeds, it should be noted that the situation creates an “economic obsolescence” condition. Like your 6-lane highway, this is where something outside of the property affects its value. In what might seem an odd methodology, this type of devaluation is considered a type of depreciation against the structure, rather than the land (which doesn’t depreciate). This makes part of my previous comment, “…doesn’t directly affect the structure” actually incorrect, in a way (I knew this previously, but left the statement as it was for simplicity).

          Now, whether this, as an already existing factor possibly affecting the depreciated value of the house, would be required to be disclosed, I don’t know. It also may be different from a possible, but as yet unrealized, event like the construction of your highway. A seller might be taking a chance in not disclosing either, if it should eventually come down to depending on where the sympathies of a jury might fall.

  6. “Rugby had enjoyed conversion with the two dogs owned by the man and his wife, two friendly, lively min-pins.“

    This sentence is confusing. Who is Rugby? What did Rugby convert to? What man?

    Need more context.


  7. “Is my neighbor obligated to tell anyone who is interested in renting or buying his now-abandoned property that the neighbor poisoned his dogs?”

    Wouldn’t it be unethical to present it stated like that, as a fact?

    I think he is ethically obligated to ask if they have a dog(s) and tell them that someone in that neighborhood poisoned a couple of dogs but the police couldn’t prove who it was.

      • Jack Marshall wrote, “That’s a big difference from the man living next door to you!”

        I know it is and that’s exactly the reason I wrote it. Without actual evidence to proof it, and it seemed to me that the police made that clear, wouldn’t it be a slanderous statement. The next door neighbor has not been formally charged or convicted of the crime.

        By stating it the way I did it’s completely clear to any potential occupants that someone has poisoned dogs and they should be extra cautious without making themself legally liable for slanderous statements, even if they believe the statement to be true.

        Couldn’t your new neighbor sue his old neighbor in civil court for the wrongful death of one of his dogs? In civil court all the facts and interviews that they do have including the information the police have would come out in court.

        • I think you could avoid any slander by simply stating the facts. Someone poisoned my dogs, we suspected it was the next-door neighbor, the police investigated and couldn’t find enough evidence to bring charges. If all of those are true statements, it’s not slanderous, right?

          • Still slanderous, if you can’t prove they are true. In fact, this is classic slander: stating something is true without being able to prove it, and the accusation is harmful to the accused.

            • What if you leave out the “we suspected the neighbor” part? Dogs were poisoned, neighbor was investigated, no charges were brought. None of those facts would be disputable, would they?

        • Yes, but the point is that this doesn’t solve the problem. It is insufficient warning. It may avoid liability, but that a legal issue. The Golden Rules would say, “Don’t play games. Tell him what YOU would want to know.”

          I think your solution is deceit, unfortunately.

          • Jack Marshall wrote, “I think your solution is deceit, unfortunately.”

            We’re going to have to disagree on that point.

            Stating “…the neighbor poisoned his dogs…”, as your original question posed, is a statement of fact and therefore slanderous because it can’t be proven, is it not?

            After the statement I suggested above has been delivered, I think if any question that’s raised by the potential occupant about what happened, it would then be fair game to state “It’s my opinion that the neighbors poisoned the dogs but the Police couldn’t prove it.”

    • I would be willing to accept this if the statement was “2 dogs were poisoned in the neighborhood but the police have not charged a suspect.”

  8. I hope you appreciate how I can work Christmas into any topic these days…

    Much like the mainstream media manages to work Trump into every story, only less forced and irritating… 🙂

  9. I think something should be said. Perhaps something like “My dogs were poisoned, and while I believe it was the neighbor, the police didn’t have enough evidence to do anything. Should you have or get a dog, you’ll want to be sure to be careful. Also, if you get proof the neighbor harmed my dogs or tries to harm yours, let me know, I’ll bring my shovel over and help hide the body. Good luck in your new home!”

  10. Without looking at other comments yet: I would say that they’re obligated to say that SOMEONE nearby poisoned dogs, without specifying who the most likely suspect is. It pretty much accomplishes the same thing. I don’t see this as necessarily being a deal-breaker. As long as a pet-owning potential buyer exercised due caution, it would probably never end up being a problem for them.
    God, what the HELL is wrong with this sick, sick World? How do you hurt children and pets?

  11. Before I was of a cognizant age, our family’s (my poor dear old Dad’s in reality) dog Blackie was killed by a neighbor who gave Blackie some poisoned meat. My Dad never talked about it but my Mother spoke of it. Absolutely brutal. There’s a picture of me as a two year old with Blackie. Great dog. I wish he had lived long enough for me to have remembered him. Then my Dad lost our daschund Rex when he jumped out of the truck my Dad was taking for a ride in when my Dad got out of the truck and then drove off without realizing Rex had hopped out. He went back to look for him but never found him. Just a few if the tragedies my Dad endured. These were relatively minor in comparison, but they add up.

    • Sorry about that, OB. They do add up emotionally and the total can be way above the sum of the parts. Sounds like it was that with with your dad, especially if he didn’t make a third try that was a success. It doesn’t make up for the losses — nothing does, really — but it helps the grieving and eventually there is a dull ache where the stunning pain used to be and the good stories remain fresh. It sounds like you were affected too, which makes it worse, especially if it meant you didn’t have a chance at having another Blackie either. Even if you don’t remember, you would have missed a pet that you loved who, more importantly perhaps, loved you.

  12. The problem is, where does it end? Do you have to disclose the drug dealing apartments a block down or the cheap motel that cater to prostitutes three blocks away. What about the liquor store nearby that caters to alcoholics in the next neighborhood over that results in all kinds of desperate people walking by looking for something to steal? The elementary school is even worse, as the kids engage in vandalism after school. All that pales in comparison to the psychopaths in charge of the homeowner’s associations.

    • …psychopaths in charge of the homeowner’s associations.

      I would resent that remark, if i was not so keen to be sure it is not true where I live.

      I was asked to come on our HOA as Treasurer (light duty for sure) with a President who did all the heavy lifting. Our motto could be “We are not the HOA Nazis.”

      After 18 months, Prez moved out of the neighborhood and I am now ‘in charge.’ I tried to get fired at our Annual Meeting (I raised rates to keep up with inflation) but (for my sins) was re-elected. Whoo. Hoo.

      (I will make a point, though: without EA and Jack’s influence I would be far less ethical in my HOA dealings from sheer ignorance. So Jack can rest assured that the lives of several thousand people are better due to his efforts.)

  13. I’m not sure what Ethical Obligations the former neighbors have. This is a hard one to decide.

    But, have they ever read the Count of Monte Cristo…I mean, not for entertainment but…as a kind of “how to” guide?

  14. I know this is the wrong answer, but part of me feels like he’s morally obligated just to murder his old neighbor, seems to solve the problem for everyone.

    If only it were legal….

    • If one wishes to be unethical, there are MANY ways to mess with someone and never cross a legal line. Think about adding them to every catalog mailing list you can find at the library, for instance, or sign them up online at every spam site. 🙂

      If you are willing to risk liability (if caught), there are many creative things that can be done with low risk. They likely park in a driveway, or have a trash can at the curb, or any number of yard and house exterior problems that could be coaxed into existence. Clog a drain cleanout, or drill a hole in the pipe; dog poop in the gutters; feed a stray cat in their hedges. This list is large.

      I said all that to make another point: be careful how you irritate your neighbors: you live in a glass house. Also, exterior cameras are becoming a must these days.

      (The thought processes above are why I do not get involved in prank wars: I tend to go too far 🙂 )

  15. For whatever it is worth, my state statute says you need to disclose anything that may affect an ordinary buyer’s use and enjoyment of the property. It probably would not cover animal poisoning. Standard forms created deal mainly with the condition of the house.

    More interesting are the exceptions: you don’t have to disclose whether someone with HIV lived thee, whether there was a natural death or suicide on the property, and whether there was perceived paranormal activity there (the Amityville exception?). You also don’t have to disclose if there are group homes nearby or whether any registered offenders live nearby, as long as you advise that such information is available from law enforcement.


  16. I agree that a specific accusation of that neighbor is a bad idea. But if a simple comment from a potential buyer like “Lovely home, the kids have been wanting to get a dog, but we ever had the room…” or “Great place! Why are you leaving?” should honestly mention the poisoned dog, then that should be included. Even if there was some property dispute, killing a lesser family member is a rotten way to be a mature adult. It comes back to the golden rule: would YOU want someone to warn you that someone in the area doesn’t like dogs before you buy a house? So avoid slander, but a safety warning is a good idea. Dogs will usually eat anything that looks good and they do get free once in a while and they can’t stay indoors 24/7 like a cat. I would rather not deal with any problem neighbor, but I would be livid with the seller if I had no warning and the worst happened.

  17. I have to agree with Marie. I would make a warning. I did it with child beaters once, you could hear the shouts and the screams (parents/children) on both sides of the street for most of the block, the teachers saw the bruises, and no one was doing anything. Every time the noise started up, I called the police. This went on for about three months, at least three times a week (that I was home, that is), made me an enemy of the parents, a nuisance to the police, a pariah to my neighbors who were scared they would become involved – (when I asked what “involved” meant, one said she thought they’d be sued, another said they’d come after his kids (one was in the same class as the older boy who was becoming a bully while the younger was shrinking away to nothing), and the rest of them just shrugged or went sad-eyed and said it wasn’t their business). Finally one day another neighbor, one of the shruggers, saw the younger boy walking around in circles in the yard with his head down and appearing to have blood coming out of his ear. He called for an ambulance; the boy was DOA. The parents had a story about an accident, the older boy – now an only child – backed them up. And there they stayed — no police, no court, no visiting child-protectors that anyone saw, until the “tattletale” neighbor’s 5-year-old girl started having nightmares about “getting prickled” in her sleep. Nobody paid attention until she began pulling away when anyone touched her. Soon she began running a fever, complaining about prickles in three places. The doctor made a thorough examination and found tiny holes in whatever areas had been exposed; the one in her scalp was infected. The child-beaters had prepared pins with feces on the tip and one of them stood on a step ladder and held the window sash up (they’d broken the catch) while the other lifted the boy inside with a pin after they could hear she’d gone to sleep. One night she was sleeping lightly, already feverish; the boy tripped over something, and her scream was heard from one street to the next. The child beaters left with their stepladder — all their movements were traceable in the soft earth on that side of the house — and denied knowing anything about it. The boy, who’d injured an ankle in some way, backed them up. We all knew he was the only one who could go in the window and he couldn’t get up to it, in, and down again by himself but, but, but, besides not having the brains to think it up. CPS finally came for him at school one day but the child-beaters were, as far as anyone could find out, ever even interviewed.

    The couple stayed, smiling snarkily at everybody, including me. The little girl’s family moved away as soon as she was okay and put their house up for sale. They told the realtors, one after another, what had happened so that they wouldn’t sell to anyone with children. As soon as the salespeople found out they had no backup with police, courts, doctors or the school, they said it was no go and pulled out of the job. Finally a realtor came along who said she’d do what the sellers wanted. She sold the house for them and they were, presumably, happy. We never heard from them again. A month after the new couple moved in, surprise! their two girls returned from camp. I have no idea what happened but I left a couple of days later without saying anything. When I returned that fall from an extended zoological survey I’d signed on for, both houses had new owners. I saw a couple of sheepish faces but I didn’t ask. And they didn’t tell. The only person who ever said a word about it was the mailman. We were standing outside looking at the interesting way the snow had piled and frozen and piled again on top of the mailbox for two days, waiting to see what that strong Colorado sun was going to do to it when it finished destroying the artwork, when he said, “‘Member them folks crost the street?” I said something affirmative, just as calmly. “Wonder where they are now?” he asks. “Do you know?” “‘Course,” he says,”I got a for’arding address, don’t I?” Then he jerks opens the front of the mailbox and gives it a shake so the rest of the sunwater and ice slides off in a chunk and reaches for his bag to get the mail out. I guess he’s leaving so I start to say “wh…” and he just keeps stuffing the mail in. Finally, I turn and start out with my bike now that the street’s been vacuumed almost bone dry in one hour of sunshine and it is (deceptively) warm. As I pedal off to work, I hear the mailman behind me: “Sometime bitchin’ don’ do no good, don’ do no bad. Don’ do nothin,” he calls. “Nice try, though.” I keep that in mind.

    I would give the prospective homeowners my opinion and support it with the evidence of my eyes and ears and the conclusions of my experience and judgment, making it clear they are mine, and end with some simple suggestions as to how to deal with them … as soon as I gave a little more thought as to how ethical the plan may be . . . . I would hope I would do that.

    • Given that the consensus is that the ethical person should warn a prospective buyer about the poisoning of tbe family pet does this warning obligation extend to all homeowners in the immediate vicinity to disclose what they know about the incident if they, who were not involved, are negotiating the sale or rental of their own property?

      As William Reese pointed out external factors can negatively create an economic obsolesence of their property as well. It seems to me that a sociopathic neighbor impacts the neighborhood as a whole.

  18. Fireworks are illegal inside our city limits. That did not stop our neighbors from setting them off, though. I simply called the police and never let them know it was me. All they got was a verbal warning, but they stopped.

    I felt it too much risk to talk to them myself.

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