Indiana case considers both the value of a dog and the legality of fur trapping in a public recreation area
VERSAILLES, Indiana––Acting for plaintiff Melodie Liddle, whose dog Copper was killed in 2011 by a Conibear trap at Versailles State Park, Indiana, Center for Wildlife Ethics cofounder and attorney Laura M. Nirenberg on October 16, 2017 asked the Indiana Court of Appeals to rule on both the legality of commercial fur trapping conducted on public recreational property and the extent of damages that may be awarded in a loss-of-pet case.
Both issues have come before the courts of many states over the years, but rarely in a single case, and seldom have resulted in wins for the plaintiffs.
Appeal filed by “winner” of case
Nirenberg, however, filed her appeal on behalf of Liddle after nominally winning a verdict for Liddle from Marion County Superior Court Judge Timothy Oakes in June 2017.
Versailles State Park, a nine-square-mile tract of former farmland near the town of Versailles, Indiana, was acquired by the National Park Service during the Great Depression, then donated to the Indiana Department of Conservation in 1943.
Versailles State Park has been heavily used for recreational bass fishing since an artificial lake was built by damming Laughery Creek in 1954, but may not have attracted fur trappers until after otter were restored to Laughery Creek between 1995 and 1999.
“Hid fur-trapping activities”
Charges Nirenberg, “For nearly a decade, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources wildlife trapping policy enabled well-connected commercial fur trappers to conceal and maintain deadly animal traps throughout state park properties. Trappers were also able to privately profit from the sale of pelts obtained from the animals captured and killed. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources deliberately hid these commercial fur trapping activities, along with deadly traps’ locations, from the public.
The Conibear trap that killed Liddle’s dog Copper “was hidden by an Indiana Department of Natural Resources employee,” said Nirenberg in a media statement, “inside a wooden box next to a shallow creek in a well-developed culvert area,” 15 feet from a paved road, down a trail made by the trapper himself. Copper became entangled in the trap after getting a drink of water.” Liddle was unable to free him.
“Traps hidden throughout park by employee”
Copper died, according to Nirenberg, because of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ “deliberate distortion of the temporary emergency rule process that enabled commercial fur trappers to access public lands for personal gain for more than eight years without the public’s knowledge or consent.”
Dozens of Conibear traps “were hidden throughout Versailles State Park by an Indiana Department of Natural Resources employee who failed to obtain proper legal authorization,” Nirenberg said. The employee’s traps were among “potentially hundreds of traps hidden within Indiana state parks by commercial fur trappers. Three weeks after Melodie buried her dog,” Nirenberg alleges, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources “issued yet another ‘Emergency Rule’ to enable more commercial fur trapping on park properties,” disguised “as a public service needed for managing ‘nuisance’ wildlife.
No evidence of “nuisance” animal problem
“The agency, unable to provide any evidence of a ‘nuisance’ animal problem in Indiana State Parks,” Nirenberg said, “even went so far as to tout an alleged ‘nuisance wildlife program’” that the Indiana Department of Natural Resources director of communications later admitted did not exist.
Marion County Superior Court Judge Timothy Oakes “decided Melodie’s hard-fought case in her favor,” Nirenberg recounted, “finding the Indiana Department of Natural Resources negligent for failing to warn state park patrons that their employee was maintaining deadly wildlife traps. The court also agreed that no reasonable person could have anticipated the reckless disregard of public safety demonstrated by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. Nor would anyone reasonably expect to encounter an illegal, deadly device on state park land hidden by the park’s so-called security officer.”
Trial court did not stop trapping
Oakes’ ruling, however, did not “prohibit future commercial fur trapping activities on state park properties, or promote transparency within an agency that customarily operates in the dark,” Nirenberg wrote. “Although the Indiana Department of Natural Resources stopped using the “Emergency Rule” after 2013, there is no evidence that commercial fur trapping and the sale of pelts is not on-going. More importantly, nothing in the trial court’s order prevents IDNR from allowing this to happen again.”
Also, Nirenberg said, “According to an earlier trial court ruling, Melodie is entitled to nothing more than ‘fair market value’ or essentially, a replacement dog. In Melodie’s case,” Nirenberg believes, “There is no ‘market value’ for a senior mixed-breed dog who was rescued from a neglectful situation and beloved by Melodie for nearly 10 years. Copper was never within the stream of commerce, nor could she ever be.”
Comparable cases in 22 states
Comparable cases involving pets caught in traps set on public land for furbearing animals have come up in at least 22 U.S. states––repeatedly in many of them––and four Canadian provinces just since 2005. More than 100 dogs and several cats have been killed in the incidents leading to those cases.
About half a dozen trappers have been convicted of related criminal charges, and in some instances have been sued successfully for damages, but none of the cases so far have established a precedent for excluding fur trappers from public lands, or even from public lands used primarily for non-lethal recreation.
“I think it’s anti-Alaskan”
Responding to recurring cases in Alaska, the seven-member Alaska Board of Game in March 2016 voted unanimously, at request of the Alaska Trappers Association, to erase requirements that traps carry identification of the trappers who set them. Forty-two states have such a requirement.
At the same meeting the Alaska Board of Game rejected a suggestion from the Alaska Wildlife Alliance that trapping and snaring should be banned in 27 communities of 1,000 people or more, at locations that that are within a quarter mile of a public road, 200 feet from a trail open to the public, and/or a mile from a school or dwelling.
The Alaska Board of Game also rejected an Alaska Wildlife Alliance request that trappers should be required to check their traps every 24 hours.
“I think it’s anti-Alaskan to promote something like this,” Wrangell board member David Brown told Zaz Hollander of the Alaska Dispatch News.
Whether damages beyond replacement cost can be assessed in a loss-of-pet case has been at issue since 2012 in appellate cases decided in Colorado, Georgia, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas, among others.
The rulings so far have been unanimous that emotional distress is not properly part of the value of a pet, but have allowed compensation over and above the purchase price of the animal if verifiable sums have been invested in special training, or if the animal performed work with demonstrable economic value.
The Georgia Supreme Court in a unanimous 2016 verdict also spelled out that in the words of Chief Justice Hugh Thompson, the value of a wrongfully injured pet may include “interest and expenses incurred by the owner in an effort to cure the animal.”
Barking Hound Village
Atlanta residents Bob and Elizabeth Monyak had sued the Barking Hound Village kennel for $67,000 in alleged damages after they boarded two dogs with Barking Hound, one of whom they contended had died of renal failure, following months of treatment, because Barking Hound gave a drug prescribed for one dog to the other.
Barking Hound Village contended that it was liable only for the replacement value of the dog who died.
The American Kennel Club, American Veterinary Medical Association, Cat Fanciers’ Association and the American Pet Products Association filed briefs in support of Barking Hound Village.
They sided with Barking Hound Village, explained Bill Rankin of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, because “if the court had allowed plaintiffs to recover damages for the sentimental or emotional value of a lost pet, it would have created a ripple affect with rising insurance costs for vets and kennels being passed on to pet owners.”
Potential boon to lawyers
The Animal Legal Defense Fund, however, supported the Monyaks.
A finding that “the sentimental or emotional value” of a pet could be taken into account in assessing damages in court cases might not have much net benefit to animals, since the animals in such cases are usually deceased.
But such a finding would be a boon to lawyers, potentially resulting in as many as 2,800 lawsuits per year filed on behalf of the owners of dogs shot by law enforcement and 40,000 lawsuits per year filed on behalf of the owners of dogs, cats, equines, and livestock killed by pit bulls, as well as in much more frequent malpractice cases filed against veterinarians, animal hospitals, and animal shelters.