Harrison’s Worth

Written by Eric J. Prescott

Unlike the stately courtrooms portrayed in typical on-screen dramas, most real-life American courtrooms tended toward the institutional. The whitewashed, windowless chamber in which Kevin and Becky Anderson awaited the outcome of their case had been stocked with a government seal and furniture appropriate to carrying out a trial. The centrality of the judge to this whole process was established by virtue of the bench’s position below the seal at the front of the room. But, other than this special layout, Kevin and Becky could have been waiting in a generic room in any number of utilitarian government facilities.

The stark environment didn’t reassure Kevin of a favorable outcome for their claim against Dontanville County Animal Care and Control, whose employees were responsible for killing their dog, Harrison, after he burrowed his way out under the backyard fence and had the misfortune to wind up in a cage at their facility. This though Kevin had successfully tracked down Harrison and received assurances from the shelter that they would hold on to the dog until Kevin could get there from work to pick him up.

Kevin, still reeling from the news of Harrison’s death upon arriving at the shelter, stood astonished in a dingy office as the shelter director asked whether he wouldn’t be so kind as to take home one of the other animals caged there on death row. Of course Kevin didn’t want any more animals to die, but he had only just learned that Harrison had been killed–by this very shelter–and it sure did seem as if the shelter director was suggesting that it would be perfectly acceptable to simply swap in another dog.

Say what you will about dogs; Kevin had certainly said his share. He had delighted in mocking the slobbery, needy, gullible Harrison as he’d spent more and more time with Becky and her dog in the early months after they had first met out jogging three years ago. But anyone who has ever known a dog knows that they’re not interchangeable.

Kevin had initially been so enthralled by his unexpected and implausibly successful romance with Becky–he’d all but given up on meeting someone in whom he could invest himself so fearlessly–that he hadn’t noticed how much he’d also grown to care about her dog. But eventually Kevin had became aware of the relationship that had developed between them, a genuine relationship between two individuals. A limited one, certainly, but real and unique all the same. Not that this ended Kevin’s good-natured mocking; one of the benefits of the language barrier was that Harrison simply adored it when Kevin made fun of him, seeing as how it always put him at the center of attention, right where he loved to be. His tail would thrash from side to side as Kevin scratched his chin and, in his sweetest baby voice, he called Harrison a pathetic goober.

Having never been responsible for another animal, nor even a child, Kevin had learned from Harrison what it was like to look out for someone else’s best interests. Harrison had depended completely on Kevin and Becky for his health and safety, thriving under their care. But then he got loose, in a world more dangerous for dogs than Kevin ever would have imagined. There really was no place for a dog out alone in the world, so it wasn’t long before Harrison was collected and taken to a shelter. And dependent though he was on humans to take care of him, he had been betrayed by them.

At a shelter.

Betrayal. Anger. Sorrow. Kevin’s emotions surged, as they had many times since the incident. Sharpening his own grief was the anger he felt for Harrison: Harrison had lost his life. One day he was tearing up grass in the backyard, chasing birds and living life to the fullest, and the next day his life was ended. But the judicial process had no room for that loss. Didn’t, in fact, recognize that loss. To explain why, Kevin and Becky’s lawyer, Gary, had explained that the law divided all before it into two legal categories: persons and property. Harrison had the misfortune to fall into the wrong category.

“Persons possess legal rights to protect their various interests, property rights being among the most important. Property has no legal rights. It cannot sue or be sued, like a person can. Property is basically a thing, something a person uses to further their interests. So, in cases like these, the law is merely concerned with addressing harms to the right-holder caused by the property loss, not with addressing any harms to the property itself.” In other words, even though Harrison was practically family, the law regarded him as little more than any of Kevin and Becky’s many other things. So, no matter what Kevin and Becky might feel about conducting the trial on Harrison’s behalf instead, the court would and only could recognize Harrison as the object of their property loss claim.

How had it come to be that someone as conscious and full of joy as Harrison could be lumped into the same legal category as unfeeling things, a mere object with no recognized value in his own right? It made no sense. It was hardly a secret that animals were capable of feeling. This was, in fact, why there existed numerous anticruelty statutes. But those laws were embedded in a legal context that systematically placed animals’ interests below those of humans, fatally undermining any protection the statute might have offered. No, the law was not for animals–except perhaps in cases of egregious neglect or sadism, and even then the concern was over the impact such inhumane behavior might have on people–the law was for persons. And Kevin couldn’t see how, as long as animals were considered property, cases like his and Becky’s would ever amount to anything more than humans suing each other over their stuff. And this is what had him feeling like these proceedings were a sham.

Becky squeezed Kevin’s hand.

“It’ll be all right.” She spoke quietly, a bid at privacy in the sparsely-populated courtroom.

When he looked back at her, he could tell that she was having misgivings, too, despite her words. She knew as well as he did that, whatever the outcome, Harrison was gone forever. It wouldn’t be all right. Nothing would really change, regardless of what Judge Spooner said. Having come around to this view, Kevin had a hard time seeing the point of sticking around for a verdict. He didn’t think he could be more disillusioned about the justness of the legal system at this point.

Despite many a person’s grand projections onto the legal system about its ability to provide emotional redress, or even justice, this was, all told, nothing more than a venue for processing cases through a judge’s interpretation of the applicable laws. If watching legislators make laws was supposed to be like watching sausage get made, to what could one compare watching those laws get interpreted and upheld? How does one begin to capture what it is that we call justice? Regardless, whatever it might look like, Kevin was confident that ‘justice’ was not imminent.

A nondescript door in the wall behind the bench swung open. With the return of Judge Spooner, the courtroom staff smoothly resumed their well-rehearsed roles. There was no jury. The shelter director had opted for a bench trial in order to reduce the risk that a jury’s emotions would play into the verdict.

“All rise.” The bailiff addressed the room, another of the many formalities.

Kevin wasn’t fond of formalities, generally, and he was feeling fairly resentful about the whole situation by now, but choosing not to rise out of some misplaced disgruntlement wouldn’t be particularly conducive to–well, anything good–so he joined the others, feeling unusually heavy as he stood. Becky noticed and draped a supportive arm around his waist. Feeling her pressed next to him, warm and alive, helped him drop his tensed shoulders a little. He wrapped his arm around her, too.

“Court is now in session, the honorable Judge Lillian Spooner presiding.” The judge finished crossing the distance to the bench and gathered herself and her robe comfortably into her seat. She drew a document closer for a brief inspection before dropping it back again.

“Please be seated.” Other than the bailiff, the scattered handful of people assembled in the gallery retook their pews. Judge Spooner surveyed the room, lingering thoughtfully on Kevin and Becky for a moment before shifting her sharp gaze to the shelter’s director. His attorney seemed to have a sense of the verdict already, looking ready to grab her briefcase and go.

“Mr. Fisher, your staff was informed that the animal in question belonged to the plaintiffs. Further, you have acknowledged that the plaintiffs had claimed and intended to collect their animal the day it was put down. Finally, the record shows that your staff neglected to take a basic, mandatory procedural step to avoid this error. You have mounted no defense, merely excuses.” Spooner held her withering look on Fisher and his attorney for a moment longer before proceeding.

“The court finds that the defendant willfully, improperly, and negligently destroyed the plaintiffs’ property, entitling the plaintiffs to compensation for their loss.”

Fisher looked annoyed, but the verdict was what everyone had pretty much expected. The negligence had been so glaringly obvious that the Fisher had admitted immediately their failure to properly remove Harrison from the kill list after Kevin had called in. The shelter had publicly apologized to the community, too, but Dontanville County Animal Care and Control had been raked over the coals in the local news anyway. This had sparked a larger national discussion about whether shelters should be killing animals at all, though that broader discussion had already fizzled out with the ever-shifting news cycle.

So a guilty verdict had been a foregone conclusion, but what was still in question was whether the suit had been a total waste of time. The damages were the only reason to have shown up at the court that day. From the beginning, Kevin and Becky had been pushed by a desire to punish the shelter, and had determined that the whole thing would be pointless if the court found that Harrison’s death merited little more than the reimbursement of his original adoption cost, which was a real risk. Gary had made it clear from the time they first retained him that, while their case was unusually open-and-shut, they shouldn’t expect much in the way of damages.

“Judgments are typically based on the fair market value of property, which can vary,” Gary had instructed. “A court might find that a shelter animal is worth practically nothing, while a purebred dog or horse might be valued higher if the market value can be demonstrated. However, some courts have more recently offered damages in recognition that the animal property in question had a special value beyond that of any common thing. Such damages are generally limited to what a court might provide if the property in question were something particularly unique, like an irreplaceable family heirloom.”

The best case they could expect, then, was recognition from the court that, from the standpoint of determining a monetary award, their dog was a special kind of thing. That was the closest thing to justice that this court was capable of providing Harrison.

“Mr. and Mrs. Anderson,” Judge Spooner continued. “I own a dog myself, the sweetest little terrier, and it does pain me to consider what it must be like to be in your shoes right now.” Leaning forward on her elbows and addressing them very plainly, she looked quite sincere. Pained, even. Kevin was taken aback. In both Gary’s prep work with them and the judge’s demeanor up until now, he had been led to expect the judge to be more or less impersonal, coldly logical, and even conservative in applying the law and rendering a verdict. But Judge Lillian Spooner was indeed human. A human who also loved a dog. Though Kevin didn’t believe she could possibly know what it was like to be in his and Becky’s shoes at the moment, despite her apparently sincere efforts.

“We expect our shelters to do the right thing when it comes to animals. Lives are quite literally on the line. And when staff are negligent and cause the needless death of a loved one, it harms all of us: You lose your beloved Harrison and the community loses trust in its shelters.” No mention of Harrison’s loss, of course. Kevin hadn’t expected any. But he was amazed again at the person Harrison had helped him to become, to be able to hear so keenly Harrison’s absence from that list of stakeholders, and to comprehend how absolutely typical it is for that absence to go unnoticed, even among those who claim to love animals.

“Now, the matter before us is strictly a property case. Your property was destroyed negligently, and that requires compensation to the owner in accordance with that property’s value, immeasurable as it might be.

“I understand that losing Harrison is unlike losing any old thing you could go out and buy again, like a car, and I know that no one could ever expect you to assign a monetary value to him, but the court must do its best under the law to compensate you for your loss. To my mind that means also recognizing Harrison’s sentimental value.” Judge Spooner leaned back into her seat again, that intimate demeanor fading back into business as usual as she reviewed the damages.

“The defendant shall pay the plaintiffs $70 for the fair market value of plaintiffs’ property. To this the court adds $5,000 for special value and an additional $5,000 penalty in light of the egregious failures on the part of the defendant which led to the destruction of the plaintiff’s property.”

Becky squeezed Kevin’s hand hard, startling him. Despite himself, he was actually glad to see her feeling good, considering how down they’d both been, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to feel it, too. He felt numb.

They’d gotten what they came for, and it was a big award, no doubt. Not the biggest he had come across when reading about cases similar to Harrison’s on the web–and there were too many of those–but it was still a rather sizable award. The shelter had been punished. Despite this best-case outcome, despite it not being a “waste of time,” Kevin felt empty. At the end of this long road to a judgment, he was no longer interested in punishing the shelter. The underlying problem was much bigger than Dontanville County Animal Care and Control.

“Mr. and Mrs. Anderson, I know full well that this award cannot compensate you for your loss–none can–but perhaps it can go some way toward putting Dontanville County Animal Care and Control and other shelters on notice. Having entrusted them with our most precious property, they must regain our trust. I don’t want see any more people in my courtroom who’ve been betrayed by a so-called shelter.”

Feeling the judge’s sympathetic gaze, Kevin nodded in acknowledgment. That was more intense experience than anything he expected from the court. Still, it kind of missed the point. Harrison himself was betrayed. All animals were. We could claim all we want that we care about animals and that we want to protect them, but this was pretty much the best we could ever hope to do for them. And, despite Judge Spooner’s words, there was truly nothing to keep this from happening again. The penalty wouldn’t make a dent in the underlying problem–couldn’t, in fact–because the underlying problem wasn’t that staffers at animal shelters were occasionally careless. The problem was systemic. As long as animals’ lives counted for so little that shelters extinguished millions of those lives every year–as long as animals continued to be regarded as mere things in the first place–there would inevitably be more Harrisons.

Now that he and Becky had taken their case as far as they legally could, Kevin wanted to get out of that courtroom. Barely present, he waited for the formalities to conclude, shook Gary’s hand, promised to call him, and accepted Becky’s hand as she guided them to the exit.

° ° °

Drinking a beer an hour later and barely tasting it, Kevin sat listening to Becky in a booth at one of their favorite restaurants. It was one of those places that helps justify its entrée prices with trendy art and fixtures, white table cloths, rich woods, leather upholstery, and strategic mood lighting that helped make the large space feel more intimate. Coming here was a weak stab at restoring normalcy, but the conversation was still drawn to the verdict.

“Of course it doesn’t make everything all better. I know that. But I think it means something that the judge recognized that Harrison had “special value.” And the five grand award for that, plus penalties… She practically threw the book at the shelter. It’s everything we were hoping for.” Her eyes sparkled. As she almost always had in their relationship, she had found some way to focus on the positive.

Kevin shrugged. “I’m sure we did just about as well as anyone could under these circumstances, but that’s sort of my problem with this whole thing. What’s the award supposed to accomplish? We don’t need the money, it won’t bring Harry back, and nothing will change in the long run. Honestly, at this point I’m more concerned about whether our award is going to deprive the shelter of funds it needs to take care of other animals. Now that we’re at the end of it, I just don’t see any upside.”

“We’ll donate the money, of course.” She seemed a bit deflated now. The sparkle had faded. But she hadn’t hesitated. “Definitely I would want it to go back to directly helping animals.” She grew thoughtful. Kevin nodded, glad that Becky had brought that up. She’d always cared about animals; Harrison was a rescue. Her compassion for animals had rubbed off on him. They had even done walks and runs to raise money for animals. But what he wanted for her to see, that he was now seeing, was that animals needed more than compassion if they’re going to be properly protected. How best to explain where he was at when he could barely articulate it to himself? It was right there, had been in the courtroom, connected deeply to the property problem, he knew it. He frowned in thought.

“There’s something fundamentally wrong with the whole thing.” Kevin stopped, dissatisfied with the vague start. Becky leaned in, picking up more of the overhead lighting in her face, looking almost angelic as she attentively watched him search for the right words.

“Remember the way your cousin, Krista, bought that dog last year because she wanted a small, apartment-friendly dog that was supposedly non-allergenic and good with kids?”

“She researched it on the internet and everything.” She shook her head. As someone who could never buy an animal while millions were dying in shelters, she’d tried to talk her cousin out of it, but couldn’t convince her. She had to have that particular dog.

“She did. She was educating herself as a consumer,” Kevin elaborated, “the way someone picks out the right TV or car for their lifestyle. That whole situation annoyed me, too, but back then I didn’t understand why it bothered me so much. Now I do.” He spoke slowly, deliberately. “It’s because she saw that dog as a thing. Not the way we saw Harrison. She was looking for something that was part companion, part accessory. The dog was a commodity in a marketplace. And that’s what Harrison was in that courtroom today, as far as the law was concerned: our thing. To suit our interests. I hated that feeling, as if Harrison was just some thing we could go out and replace at a pet store. Doesn’t that bother you?”

“Of course,” she stated it as obvious, with a shrug, but then she seemed to sort of drift off for a moment. In her eyes Kevin could see her thinking.

“I did have that sense that we were basically talking around him the whole time,” she revealed. “Like, the whole case was about us when it should have been about him.”

“Exactly.” Kevin leaned in eagerly, getting somewhere. “In that court, Harrison’s interests as a dog, as a being, were totally ignored–totally irrelevant. But the law couldn’t disregard animals like that–it would actually protect them–if we all stopped seeing them as commodities, as our things.” Kevin paused and chewed on that, now that he’d said it out loud. It was a big statement.

Becky leaned back into her seat and they sat, regarding each other over an empty table as they weighed the implications of his conclusion. It was a pretty big leap to make, he thought. Big for her, because they had only just started talking about it, but it was kind of a big leap for him, too. Despite having thought about this stuff for a little while now, he had only recently come to think of all the companion animals like Harrison who might end up in a shelter. And it was only at this very moment that was he making a connection between Harrison and pretty much any other animal. He could feel his perspective shifting, like a seemingly immutable constellation had changed while he looked away. This wasn’t where he thought he was going when he started talking to Becky, but it made logical sense. She leaned back in, having grabbed hold of an idea. Her eyes were bright again.

“If the best we can do for even our most beloved animals is to regard them as ‘special’ things, something is pretty messed up.” He nodded, recognizing his earlier thought. He liked that Becky was thinking along these lines, too. Made it easier to consider these thoughts when they were on the same page.

“No doubt,” he said. “So what about all the other animals, for whom we have no special feelings? What’s the best possible scenario they can experience as someone’s property?” He hadn’t only asked her. He thought about it for himself, too, trying to imagine the best practical scenario for animals used for human pleasure and convenience. It wasn’t good.

“If the best we can do for a given animal is what was done for Harry,” Becky replied, “then the protection provided to animals who don’t have his ‘special value’ must be practically non-existent.” She looked pensive, deeply saddened by this revelation. It hurt to see, and it hurt to think about it, too. But he knew he couldn’t put the thought out of his mind. He couldn’t comfort her, or himself. They had to face reality. Harrison had one more lesson to teach them.

One of their regular servers, Brian, stopped by the table to deliver their usual comfort dinner: Kevin, a thick, chargrilled steak; Becky, roasted chicken with rosemary. These dishes had become routine favorites out of comfort and familiarity, the way the crisp grilled flesh felt under the teeth and the juices slid over the tongue. But as the plates were set in front of them, Kevin stared back at his, wrestling with nagging thoughts. Becky regarded her plate, too, doubtful.

“Bon appétit!” Brian, an affable lifer in his late 30s, observed that something unusual was going on this evening, and so the server quietly slipped away with the serving tray.

Leaden, Kevin picked up his fork and knife and cut open the chargrilled steak to reveal the pink muscle inside, a gaping wound staring back at him. He stopped cutting and let his fork and knife clank hard against the table. Becky saw Kevin’s expression slacken and she leaned forward again to put her hand on his. He could feel her watching him. He wanted her to see what he was seeing. Better yet, how he was seeing. He didn’t know how to put it into words, but he had never seen it quite so clearly: Sitting in front of him was muscle tissue carved from another being. It was part of someone else’s body. He thought of Harrison’s too-mortal flesh, also meat. Meat he never would have dreamed of eating. He had never thought of it this way before, never even thought of thinking this way before. He supposed he hadn’t had to. Human privilege had its benefits. But now he did think about it this way. He intuited that he must.

To eat the steak before him would require believing that the animal from whom it was taken was meaningfully different from Harrison, the moral equivalent of a thing. But no meaningful differences came to mind. The fact that Kevin had known Harrison personally didn’t change whether it was wrong to eat him. It didn’t matter that Harrison was bred for a non-food purpose, as the only reason some animals were used for food and some animals for other purposes was simply because of tradition. Because someone said so.

Here it was, staring him in the face, the thing that tied it all together: There simply was no morally relevant difference between Harrison and other animals. That changed everything.

He looked at his plate again. The animal from whom his steak had been cut had been an individual, like Harrison. Like Harrison, he would have had interests of his own–interests in avoiding suffering and death, for example–interests far greater than Kevin’s own transient and trivial interest in eating a steak that he’d forget by dessert.

He couldn’t look at the plate in front of him anymore, much less eat it. He kept seeing Harrison there instead. It was a dark, cruel twist that caused him to make that connection, but it couldn’t be unmade, and he knew it would haunt him. Still, if anything worthwhile was going to come of Harrison’s death, it was going to be the understanding that Kevin couldn’t continue to use animals for his own benefit any more than he’d ever thought of “using” Harrison for his own benefit.

If Becky agreed with what he felt they must do–and, given that she had already covered her plate with her cloth napkin, he was pretty sure she would–she would no doubt find the positive in it. But first he had to get out of there.

Kevin unfolded his napkin and placed it over his plate, too. Then he shuffled some money out of his wallet and onto the table. Together, he and Becky left the restaurant.

Walking to the car, Kevin broke his silence.

“They didn’t deserve to die any more than he did.”

“I know. It’s okay. I get it. We don’t have to participate in that.”

Kevin stopped and looked at Becky closely in the dim light out front of the restaurant. A weight seemed to be lifting. He took her hands in his. She looked up at him with the strength of love and a shared certainty of purpose, a sparkle in her eyes. For the first time in a long while, Kevin smiled.

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Harrison’s Worth by Eric J. Prescott is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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