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Urban Rhythms

Animal Cruelty

By Wiley Hall III | Posted 8/28/2002

On Oct. 1, Frederick County landlord Eric Grossnickle let himself into the Myersville home of his tenant, April Ritch. He hunted through the house for Ritch's three cats, Angel, Babe, and Buffy. He caught Angel and Babe. Buffy hid from him.

Grossnickle claimed the cats were making nuisances of themselves--urinating on the floor, scratching the walls--creating the kind of headaches that cats exult in. Grossnickle had given Ritch an ultimatum: Get rid of the cats by Oct. 1 or find another place to live.

And so, on Oct. 1, Grossnickle entered Ritch's home and took the two cats he had captured out in front of the house where he shot them to death with a 12-gauge shotgun. Then he took the carcasses and tossed them into nearby Catoctin Creek.

Ritch returned home later that evening and saw blood splattered across her driveway. Grossnickle was standing there. She asked him what had happened. He told her he had killed her cats. Ritch called police. Grossnickle told them what he had done and why. Police charged the landlord with two counts of cruelty to animals, theft, and malicious destruction of property. The most serious of the charges, cruelty to animals, carried a $5,000 fine on each count and a maximum three-year sentence.

The case created a flurry of controversy in bucolic Frederick County, where cat lovers claimed that shooting animals is almost as insane as shooting people, and others--let's call them non-cat lovers--claimed that anyone or anything that urinates on the floor and scratches the walls deserves what it gets, so there.

On Aug. 21, Frederick County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ann Stepler found Grossnickle guilty of two counts of malicious destruction of property. But she acquitted him of theft and animal cruelty. The law, Stepler said, does not clearly define what it means to "cruelly kill" an animal. But whatever the definition, Grossnickle's actions were "not even close" to violating it.

While Stepler acknowledged that it is clearly cruel to place a cat in a microwave oven and cook it, shooting cats with a 12-gauge shotgun is an accepted way of disposing of unwanted animals in Frederick County.

"Here Mr. Grossnickle testified he's worked on a farm since age 7," the judge said, according to the Frederick News-Post account. "He has killed more than 50 cats by using a shotgun, an accepted method in the farm community. He believes that using a 12-gauge shotgun was more humane than taking the animals to the animal shelter. He had no intention of causing them unnecessary suffering."

Stepler said laws against animal cruelty in Maryland and across the country try to strike a balance between animal rights and the view that animals are property.

"The law allows killing animals for food processing, hunting, scientific research, pest control, and agricultural practices," Stepler said. "The law must apply evenly to all animals. This action by the defendant is not a crime unless he cruelly killed the cats. If we see an animal treated cruelly, we know it."

A couple of things leap out at me about this case. First, I'm certain that even a punctilious nitpicker, as Stepler seems to be, would have had no problem recognizing Grossnickle's act as animal cruelty if Babe and Angel had been dogs. My guess is Stepler prefers creatures that lick her feet, wag their tails, and otherwise continually stroke her wretched ego. I'll keep this in mind if I ever find myself in her court.

Second, this case raises the question of animal rights, one of the most divisive issues of the new millennium. Some people believe passionately that human beings have a moral and ethical duty to respect all life. Others believe just as passionately that, to paraphrase old Judge Roger Taney, author of the decision in the Dred Scott case of 1854, an animal has no rights that a human is bound to respect.

I try to stay neutral on the topic, especially in everyday conversation, because you never know when an inadvertent expression of sympathy for an animal is going to set somebody off. But I have to tell you frankly that I tilt toward the animal-rights crowd. I think People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has adopted exactly the right name to address how we ought to approach the question of animal rights. According to my dictionary, "ethical" refers to "an accepted standard of conduct; deliberations of good and evil; moral principles and practice; honorable, upright and virtuous behavior."

Using ethical treatment as our standard, the balancing act that Stepler should have considered was not between animal rights and property, but between the animals' rights and human need. If we are not at the point yet where we are prepared to respect animal life for life's sake--and obviously we aren't--we can at least ask ourselves, when attempting to define animal cruelty, whether Angel and Babe needed to die. Grossnickle had alternatives to the shotgun blast, but he chose not to use them. That strikes me as cruel.

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