When good fences don't suffice, a state senator is hoping tougher dog laws make good neighbors.
In the wake of a Chester County incident in which a man shot and killed his neighbors' Bernese mountain dogs, which he said were chasing his sheep, Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, introduced two bills last week that could increase civil damages and restrict the circumstances under which killing a dog or cat is justified.
Mr. Dinniman said the civil suit legislation is a direct response to the Chester County shooting.
In that case, Gabriel Pilotti, 72, originally told police he shot his neighbors' dogs while they were chasing his sheep in a fenced pasture, according to a criminal complaint.
But Mr. Pilotti later told investigators that he shot the dogs when they were outside the fenced pasture. He is charged with cruelty to animals.
Pennsylvania law permits property owners like Mr. Pilotti to kill dogs, provided they are pursuing livestock or other people.
One of the bills Mr. Dinniman has introduced would have allowed Mr. Pilotti's neighbors to collect $5,000 in damages if the death had been due to a "negligent act," or $12,000 if the act had been intentional.
Mr. Dinniman said that under current law, people can sue only for the original cost of the cat or dog.
"This recognizes that if someone destroyed your dog through negligence or gross negligence, you should also be able to get additional funds," Mr. Dinniman said.
He added that state law has been slow to recognize cats and dogs as an "entity of emotional and real value," and hopes this legislation will recognize the evolution of domestic pets as family members.
The second bill Mr. Dinniman introduced would raise the burden on those who claim they shot an animal because it endangered their livestock.
Under the proposed law, property owners would have to demonstrate not just that the cat or dog was pursuing livestock, but that it had an "apparent intent to harm."
But not everyone is convinced this change in the law will do much to curb pet killing.
"I understand that a person has every right to protect themselves or their personal pet," said Ronald Smith, chief humane officer at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society. "But in almost all situations, these alleged attacks occurred when there are no witnesses."
That makes it almost impossible for investigators with limited resources to sort out whether an animal actually had the intent to harm livestock, he said.
Mr. Smith hopes that the law is amended to make it even more difficult to justify killing an animal.
"The way the law reads, you don't have to wait for the attack to occur to protect [yourself or your livestock]," Mr. Smith said.
"The burden of proof should be a little harder. Right now it's just too easy to say, 'I thought he was going to attack my pet.' "
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.