SAN FRANCISCO — This city is no stranger to urban crime. But the image that peers from behind a metal cage these days, arousing outrage here and beyond, is the face of a dog named Hera.
Hera and her companion Bane mauled to death a San Francisco woman in the hall of her apartment building in January. It was a horrific crime that made national headlines and led to the quick euthanization of Bane, the larger lead dog in the attack.
Hera is to meet a similar fate, but only after authorities have used her as possible evidence in a case that soon could lead to criminal charges against the dogs' owners.
While the case's possible legal repercussions make it noteworthy, it is also testing more broadly society's changing view of the relationship between man and dog.
The role of household pets has grown enormously over the past few decades as Americans lavish them with greater comforts and status. Yet the legal, ethical, and social responsibilities that go along with pet ownership have lagged, say a number of analysts.
"With the greater interjection of dogs into our social lives and culture, we're changing our concept of ownership to guardianship and the idea of them being pets to the idea of them as companions," says Steve Zawistowski of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "But as we give greater autonomy to pets, the question is what are the related responsibilities to owners."
A number of analysts in the pet field liken the growing debate over owner responsibility to moves to clarify the social and legal responsibilities of parents for the actions of their children.
Should owners be fully liable for the actions of their animals, and if so, what should the standards of punishment be?
The case of Diane Whipple, the woman victimized in San Francisco, has focused with rare intensity on owner responsibility because of the outrageousness of the incident.
Deaths caused by dogs are rare but not unheard of in the US. But usually, say experts, the incidents involve dogs on the loose or children going into areas they should not be, like someone else's yard.
In this case, the victim was killed in the hallway of her own apartment building by dogs that were leashed by their owner.
A key legal question in the case is whether the dogs were trained as guard dogs. The owners deny they were. But if the district attorney finds evidence to the contrary, he could file charges alleging the owners are culpable for recklessly keeping the dogs in circumstances that endangered others, say analysts.
The case itself has enough bizarre characters for an Elmore Leonard crime mystery. The dogs' owners, lawyers Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller, acquired the animals through a relationship with prison inmate Paul "Cornfed" Schneider, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood imprisoned for robbery. While Mr. Noel and Ms. Knoller have represented Schneider in cases charging prison authorities with harassment, they also legally adopted Schneider as their son.
Schneider attempted to establish what prison officials say was an attack-dog business by sending money to a partner outside of prison. But when the venture collapsed, Knoller and Noel took in two of the dogs.
Hera and Bane are mixes of the rare Presa Canario breed and together weighed more than 200 pounds.
Whatever the outcome of this case, it highlights several salient trends.
The canine pet population is growing and stands at about 58 million in the US. In particular, large dogs are increasingly popular. This has to do with a variety of lifestyle changes in the American family, but one of them has to do with the notion that big dogs can provide added security.
In cities, however, one person's desire for security and companionship can quickly run up against the rights and safety of others. Indeed, cities have adopted whole new standards governing pets, ranging from cleanup requirements to leash and muzzle laws.
Beyond numbers and types, the role of dogs within many families is clearly different. Gone are the days a generation or two ago when dogs were mainly for kids, taken care of by mom and kept in the backyard or garage, says Elliot Katz, president and founder of In Defense of Animals, a national advocacy group based in Mill Valley, Calif.
Today, "people have begun to see dogs as individuals, not just accessories," says Mr. Katz.
The change is evident in moves in some municipalities to change legal parlance concerning pet "owners" to that of "guardians." The philosophy is that animals are "beings" rather than "things" and that the concept of guardianship promotes the idea of long-term commitment.
In the view of many, it also brings an added weight of responsibility.
"I believe that when animals cause risk to the public, the responsible party should be held fully accountable, and that party is the caregiver," says Richard Avanzino, president of Maddie's Fund, an animal welfare foundation.
Katz agrees: "If something good comes out of this, it will be that society deals with the responsibility that comes when one takes guardianship of an animal."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor