Farmer’s Case Prompts Dog Killing Bill

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

Feb. 12 was not the first time Gabriel Pilotti had seen dogs near his sheep on his farm in West Vincent Township, Chester County. In May 2012 he had shot two pit bulls that had killed several sheep and an alpaca.

With two blasts from a single-barrel shotgun, Pilotti killed the two Bernese mountain dogs that wandered onto his property that February day. Then he plunged into a legal nightmare.

Pilotti believed he was justified in shooting the dogs because he was protecting his livestock. His neighbors, William and Mary Bock, were horrified that he had killed their pets after they escaped from their fenced-in yard.

“In May, I was too late,” Pilotti said at his trial, according to Michael Rellahan of the Delaware County Daily Times. “I was too late. There was death and blood throughout the community. People said I was a hero, but I was too late. I was not going to be too late this time.”

But instead of being treated as a hero, Pilotti was arrested for animal cruelty on Feb. 22 and convicted in county court on Sept. 11. He will be sentenced Monday.

Pilotti’s attorney, Tom Ramsay, said his client would decide whether to appeal once the sentence is handed down.

Pilotti could spend 2!-W-5 years in prison, though Rellahan said the sentence will likely be much less severe.

A crucial piece of evidence seems to have been Pilotti’s admission to police that one of the dogs was running away when he shot it, Ramsay said.

Under the 1982 Dog Law, “if a dog is actively pursuing your livestock, you have the right to protect your livestock and to shoot the dog,” Ramsay said.

The Dog Law is a defense against charges of animal cruelty, but because the dog was not pursuing the sheep when it was shot, the jury did not see the defense as applicable, he said.

Ramsay said farmers need greater legal protection for defending their livestock. Without more safeguards, a farmer can too easily think he is within his rights defending his property but end up with criminal charges.

As the law now stands, “you better see some blood or injured livestock before you start shooting any dogs,” he said.

In the wake of the killing, a social media firestorm erupted against Pilotti, who asked that his lawyer speak for him for this article.

Justice for Argus and Fiona was the most prominent Facebook group, named after the two dogs that Pilotti shot. A post on another page, DogHeirs, garnered 1,110 likes and features a long list of people calling for Pilotti to be jailed or even shot.

The case also caught the attention of state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-West Whiteland. An avowed dog lover who has sponsored numerous dog-related bills, Dinniman introduced legislation in March that stipulates that a dog can be shot only for pursuing livestock if it displays intent to harm the animal.

The bill, SB 645, is also sponsored by Edwin Erickson, R-Drexel Hill, and is awaiting action by the Senate Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee.

“All the bill does is ask the farmer to think twice before shooting the gun,” Dinniman said.

Dinniman said he has been concerned about animal welfare issues since his childhood on a Connecticut farm. He and his friends saw a neighboring farmer drowning kittens. They implored him to stop, but he refused.

As a state senator, Dinniman often brings his poodle Henry to the office and to public events. Dinniman also appointed William Bock, the owner of the dogs Pilotti shot, to the board of the Chester County SPCA in August.

Dinniman said he hopes bills like the livestock pursuit legislation can help ease tensions between neighbors in areas like Chester County where the suburbs meet rural areas. Farmers need to be able to protect their livelihood from dangerous dogs, and nonfarmers need to keep their animals from getting loose.

SB 645 and Dinniman’s other dog bills are also designed to update laws as attitudes toward animals change.

“For most people today, a dog is not simply a commodity,” he said. “It’s an actual member of someone’s family.”

Dinniman helped pass a bill last year that outlawed the gassing of dogs. Before that law, the only limit to killing a dog with tailpipe exhaust was that the fumes not exceed 112 degrees.

“From today’s perspective, that’s outrageous,” he said.

The senator said a dog’s intentions should not generally be difficult to figure out. People evaluate dogs’ intentions every day when they visit a friend’s house or walk down the street.

While he acknowledged that a dog’s intent is more difficult to determine once it is dead, police can use forensic analysis as they do on humans to determine how a bullet entered a dog.

Dinniman said he views the bill’s chances of passage as 50/50, the same odds he initially gave to the gassing law. He said he is hopeful that the bill will pass.

Mark O’Neill, media director at the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said the bill would reduce farmers’ ability to defend their animals.

“Senate Bill 645 would put the farmer in a nearly impossible situation, where the farmer would be required to make a split-second decision and read the mind of a dog or the minds of a pack of wild dogs to accurately determine if those animals had an intent to harm’ before the farmer could act,” he said in a statement. “Livestock could be killed or seriously wounded before the intentions of the dogs became apparent to the farmer.”

The bill also could force a farmer to hire an expert in animal behavior to testify about the dog’s intentions if the farmer were put on trial, O’Neill said.

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