Controversy Surrounds Phoenix Park Dog Shooting

Character Travis Coates takes aim at his beloved dog suffering from rabies in the Disney classic Old Yeller, making him one of the most notable yet tragic dog killers of all time.

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One of the most enduring scenes in movie history to anyone over 40 at least is the one of young Texas frontier boy Travis Coates tearfully having to put his dog, Old Yeller, down due to rabies. As the dog, who got rabies after saving the family from being attacked by a rabid wolf and being bitten in the process, sits growling and foaming at the mouth in a shed. Young Travis takes the rifle from his mother saying, “He was my dog. I’ll do it.”

One of the reasons this scene has touched so many viewers over the years is because of the universal realization that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t the thing we want to do. That’s called responsibility, something gradually becoming in short supply these days. But it also touches so many people because quite simply, our love for dogs.

An old adage in movie making is you want people to hate a villain, have him kill an innocent person, want them to really hate him, have him kill someone’s dog. At the same time, there are viewers who can gleefully watch people die by the handful in a movie but lose it if an animal is taken out. Not sure what that says about us as humans short of many of us identify innocence with our pets.

Phoenix Dog Park Tragedy

So, now it seems Phoenix, in a state with a robust gun owning population, has a full-blown controversy on its hands after a man shot two dogs off their leash in a dog park. The dogs allegedly charged the man and a friend aggressively. The man is claiming self-defense, and so far, the police investigation seems to support that. But pet owners and others are livid and want the man arrested.

The incident took place at Desert Horizon Park in north Phoenix last week. According to AZCentral, the Phoenix Police Department responded to the scene last Thursday afternoon, where two dogs were fatally shot after allegedly charging at the man and his friend. The dogs’ owner reportedly had them off-leash at the time, a violation of park rules.

Phoenix Police Sgt. Mayra Reeson confirmed that the initial investigation aligned with the shooter’s claim of self-defense, leaving the case closed pending any new evidence. The incident, oddly, is not isolated, as it follows another dog-related fatality earlier this year. In that case, a man stabbed a dog he felt was threatening him. That dog also was not on a leash as required by park rules. That man also did not face charges. Both cases have park goers and Phoenix residents pointing to a rising concern over pet safety in public spaces.

The two dogs killed looked nice enough and nonthreatening in this AZFamily news image, yet nobody, except those at the park that day know what really happened. Could the gun owner have over reacted? Some local residents believe so, but so far, no charges have been filed by police supporting his self-defense claim.

Legal Perspective

The legal framework surrounding such cases is complex.

Criminal defense attorney Dwane Cates told AZFamily News that potential charges against the shooter could take time to develop through police investigation. And charges may also never come if it remains determined he acted in a reasonable belief that he and his friend were in danger.

“Well, he could be charged with endangerment. He could be charged with discharging weapons in city limits,” said Cates. “Now again, if he’s justified in doing it by self-defense, then none of those charges will come. But there is a bevy of charges they could charge him with.”

According to Arizona Gun Law Armed & Educated by Arizona attorney Craig Rosenstein:

While there is no specific justification statute that describes when force may be used against animals, Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 13-417 does describe a “necessity” defense. In pertinent part, it says that:

“Conduct that would otherwise constitute an offense is justified if a reasonable person was compelled to engage in the proscribed conduct and the person had no reasonable alternative to avoid imminent public or private injury greater than the injury that might reasonably result from the person’s own conduct.”

That’s a lot of legalese. What it means in English is that if you have no reasonable alternative but to engage in something that would be a crime in order to prevent a greater harm than your “crime” would cause, you may be able to assert the defense of necessity.

In the book, Rosenstein offers an example, from a legal point, aligned with what the man in the park is claiming:

You are being attacked by an animal at large. Reasonably fearing death or serious physical injury, you shoot the animal.

And then offers this response:

In this example, there are two “crimes” that have (arguably) been committed. The first is discharging a firearm in city limits; the other is animal cruelty by intentionally or knowingly causing the death of an animal. However, assuming you had no reasonable alternative, the harms that result from those “crimes” are far outweighed by the risk of you dying or receiving a serious physical injury.

Pet Owners/Animal Lovers Angered

Legal reasoning aside and emotions front and center, the community response has been varied in reaction to the shooting with some residents calling for accountability of the man and expressing disbelief at the presence of a firearm in a public park. Natasha Siera and Caryle Stein, local residents, voiced concerns over safety and the appropriateness of carrying guns in such settings to AZFamily. Stein has even taken to distributing flyers with photos of the man who shot the dogs to alert park visitors about the individual, whom she deems extremely dangerous, though the shooter has not been arrested or charged.

“A dog was shot unnecessarily in the middle of a park where other people could have been injured,” Stein said on camera with AZFamily. “I don’t know anyone walking around with a gun looking to kill dogs.”

It’s doubtful the man in the park was “walking around looking to kill dogs” either. And in fact, he could be just as distraught over what transpired as those who are upset over the dog’s deaths. But no one knows that for sure because the man hasn’t spoken publicly. What is known is that Stein’s actions could land her in her own legal mess, at least civilly, if the man remains uncharged by police and decides to file suit against her apparent slander and public intimidation.

That said, it is also possible the man over reacted, too. Most of us know someone who has an almost irrational fear of dogs (though why would you walk in a dog park if you had a fear of dogs) and many of us have been charged by a dog that seemed aggressive but may have only been overzealous in their excitement at seeing someone new. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference if a dog running at you is about to bite you or wants to be petted, and you may not know until the last second. Despite that, it seems a lot of people are drawing their own conclusions without knowing all the facts.

“I think he definitely needs to be held accountable and made an example out of just because who is more threatening? A guy with a gun at the park. Why are you at the park with a gun? That’s just crazy to me,” said Siera when interviewed by AZFamily.

All Laws Need to be Enforced

Ultimately, the dog park incident raises significant legal and societal questions about the balance between self-defense rights and the responsibilities of pet owners and individuals in public spaces. The requirement for dogs to be leashed in public parks is a clear regulation intended to prevent such tragedies, yet the enforcement and awareness around these rules often go unenforced. In all of this, there is something for responsible pet owners to consider as well.

Fluffy your pit bull may cuddle warmly with you on the couch while you watch The Bachelor at night, but let him get loose in a park and run barreling toward a small child whose armed parent is only feet away and things could go sideways in a hurry for Fluffy. Even if Fluffy just wants to play.

Only time will tell if additional eye witness accounts lead to criminal charges being filed or if in the eyes of the law this remains an open and shut case of self-defense. The pet owners always have the option of attempting civil action as well. Regardless of how this plays out, the case underscores the need for a careful consideration of laws, regulations and enforcement to protect all parties involved, whether two-legged or four-legged, in public spaces.

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