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The Cop and the Pitbull: A Halachic Analysis By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

It happened this past Monday on East 14th and Second Avenue in Manhattan. A video of the play by play emerged on Thursday. Police officers approached Lech Stankiewicz, a homeless man who was lying on the street. Lech had apparently suffered a seizure. Lech also owns a female pit bull named “Star.”

The dog feels that she must protect her ailing master. At first she bites the pants of a woman. Then Star circles around to face the police officer. Dogs do not know that police officers should be respected and obeyed. Star ran toward one of the police officers. The police officer then shot the dog with his service revolver.

To see the very graphic video, Click Here

The question is, from a halachic perspective, did the officer act correctly?

It could very well be that the answer to this question is dependent upon one of two answers in a Tosfos.

But first, let us begin with the verse in the Torah. The verse in Shmos (21:29) tells us that if an ox gores a human being it must be put to death through stoning. Since the verse connects the ox to its master, the Braisah (cited in Sanhedrin 15b) informs us of an oral tradition that a Bais Din of twenty-three is also required to put the ox to death.

There is a three way debate in the first Mishna of Sanhedrin as to whether the requirement of the Bais Din of twenty three applies only to oxen or to other animals as well.

• The Tanna Kamma holds that a privately owned wolf, lion, bear, leopard, hyena or snake that killed a person must be put to death with a Bais Din of 23.

• Rabbi Eliezer disagrees and says that whoever kills any of these animals first receives merit. He is of the opinion that the verse in Shmos is limited to an ox.

• Rabbi Akiva agrees with the Tanna Kamma except for in regard to snakes, in which the Gemorah explains he agrees to Rabbi Eliezer.

Regarding the view of Rabbi Eliezer there is a debate among the Amoraim as to how to interpret his view. Must these animals first have killed or shown a propensity to kill before one may kill him? Raish Lakish is of the opinion that Rabbi Eliezer only permitted killing these owned animals on sight when they have killed before. Rav Yochanan disagrees and says that these animals are inherently untrainable and therefore Rabbi Eliezer holds one may kill them in all circumstances. The Gemorah cites a proof from a Braisah that fits more with Raish lakish than Rabbi Yochanan.

The Rambam (Hilchos Sanhedrin 5:2) seems to rule like Raish Lakish’s view of Rabbi Eliezer in regard to undomesticated animals, and like Rabbi Akiva’s view in regard to snakes. In short, he rules that trained lions, bears and hyenas require a Beis Din of twenty three to kill them.

We now turn to another related Gemorah.

The Gemorah in Bava Kamma (80b) relates the tragic incident of a child whose hand was cut off by a Shunrah, translated generally as a cat. [Side issue: This author thinks that the Shunrah of Talmudic times should be translated as a bobcat rather than cat.] After this incident, Rav went out and announced that it is permissible to kill a cat on account of its inherent dangerous nature. He also discussed the implicationsthat it is forbidden to raise these animals in the first place and that one may keep the skins too.

The Gemorah poses a question on Rav from a Braisah that states that one may raise smaller dogs and cats. The Gemorah answers by differentiating between a black type of cat (which is more domestic) and a certain type of white cat which is more dangerous. Rav was referring to the more dangerous white variety.

Tosfos (“Mutar L’hargo”), however, poses a question on Rav’s statement permitting the killing of cats. Why is it permissible to kill the cat when Raish Lakish had qualified Rabbi Eliezer’s view regarding lions, tigers, bears, wolves and hyenas that it was only permitted if these trained and owned animals had previously killed? If they did not kill then it is forbidden to kill them! Certainly a cat is not any more dangerous than these animals. Why did Rav permit the killing of these cats?

Tosfos gives us two answers. The first answer is that the animals in the Mishna in Sanhedrin refer to ones that are chained, but the cat is completely unchained.

In the second answer, Tosfos states that people are aware of the dangers of the animals listed in the Sanhedrin Mishna and know to protect themselves accordingly and won’t come to a life-endangerment. Regarding these cats, people may not be aware of the fact that genetically they come from the dangerous white cat and won’t know to protect themselves.

Plugging both of these answers into our case with the New York City Police Officer, according to the first answer in Tosfos, this animal is not chained and therefore could be killed. It would be more similar to the case in Bava Kamma than that of Raish Lakish in Sanhedrin.

According to the second answer in Tosfos, people are definitely aware that a pit bull may bite and would know to be careful with it.

But let’s research a bit further. The Rambam (Hilchos Gzailah v’Avaidah 15:17) states that it is forbidden to raise an evil cat that kills children and it is those cats whose skins one may keep. This implication is that the animal needs to kill first in order to fit into the status of permitted to kill them and keep their skin. He seems to be taking the qualification of Raish Lakish in Sanhedrin as the final Halacha. The Rambam seems to understand the Gemorah in Bava Kamma differently or has a different version of the Gemorah in Bava Kamma. The Tur in Choshain Mishpat (266) rules the same way.

But wait, not so fast.

The Shulchan Aruch (CM 266:4), however, cites the same Halacha as the Rambam and the Tur in terms of permission to keep the skin, but changes the wording! He writes “who harms children.” This is like the Gemorah in Bava Kammah, or our version of it.

According to the Rambam and the Tur, what the police officer did was wrong. According to the Shulchan Aruch, the dog had to have a demonstrable history of harming people.

Since there is another equivalent to the “history of harming people requirement” is if it is by nature a dangerous breed (like the white cats referred to in Bava Kamma 80b), even according to the Shulchan Aruch, the officer may have been correct or may have been wrong.

Rav Vosner Shlita in Shaivet HaLeivi volume VI #241 deals with the general issue of shooting a dog with no previous record of harming and concludes that it is forbidden to do so even if it is barking excessively and disturbing to others. The Aruch HaShulchan (OC 316:22) rules regarding Shabbos that when the Pikuach Nefesh is not clear and there are multiple doubts, we may not shoot the dog. He explains that when there is a doubt in the ikkar, in the central aspect of it at all, it could be that it is not permitted to do so on Shabbos. He rules that a gentile must be sought to get rid of the dog.

Let us look, however, at Pit Bulls in general. Are they halachically considered a dangerous breed? What is the view in American law?

Pit Bulls were first bred in England as a cross between the Bulldog and a terrier to create a breed that was as strong as a bull dog but with the peppiness of a terrier. Inherently, they are no more dangerous than a regular strong dog. Different states and courts have quite varied views of Pit Bulls and Pit Bull like dogs (there are three breedss that fit into the general category of Pit Bull). The problem is that criminals do use them and train them for nefarious purposes.

Because of the strong possibility of the dog having been trained for these purposes, the pit bull can be compared to the cats referred to by Rav in Bava Kamma.

As an interesting aside, internal New York City Police Department statistics show that one out of four times that a police officer uses his gun, it is to shoot at a dog. However, according to police guidelines on the use of deadly force, officers may not shoot at dogs “except to protect themselves or another person from physical injury and there is no other reasonable means to eliminate the threat.”

Was there another reasonable means to eliminate the threat?

This author believes that there is a very simple alternative means, but it is not commonly known, so one cannot blame the police officer. The officer was correct. Especially since, at least in theory, the police officer was trying to save the seizure suffering owner.

What is disconcerting about all this, of course, is that everyone in the media and in the video seem to be focused on the dog and the propriety of the police officer shooting the dog, but no one seems to be concerned about the human being that is lying on the ground unresponsively.

So what happened to Star?

The Gothamist reports that she is alive and recovering slowly. “Star’s condition is still serious, but thankfully she is showing signs of slight improvement,” Richard Gentles, the press representative for Animal Care & Control says.

What happened to Lech?

No one, unfortunately, seems to care enough to report. Olam Hafuch.

The author can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com

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Posted by on August 17, 2012. Filed under In This Week's Edition,Slider. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Response to The Cop and the Pitbull: A Halachic Analysis By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

  1. Sholom Rothman

    August 17, 2012 at 7:43 am

    If the dog bit the pants of the woman and then ran at a police officer, isn’t that already enough evidence of its intent to harm humans?