Virginia Woman Ordered Dog Euthanized, Buried With Her After She Died

A Virginia woman left unusual instructions for the Executor of her will, and it's become something of a controversy.

A case out of Virginia has been raising some eyebrows and causing controversy over the past week, for what seem like obvious reasons. Basically, it involves a woman who died and who left instructions with her executor that she wanted her dog euthanized and buried with her after she died:

A healthy dog was put to death in Virginia at the behest of its owner, who made the request in her will.

The owner of Emma, a Shih Tzu mix, died March 8. Her dog was held at the Chesterfield Animal Shelter before it was picked up March 22 and then euthanized, NBC affiliate WWBT in Richmond first reported.

Heartbroken animal shelter officials said they had no choice but to turn over Emma to the estate executor, even knowing what was going to happen to her.

“We did suggest they could sign the dog over on numerous occasions, because it’s a dog we could easily find a home for and re-home,” Chesterfield Animal Services manager Carrie Jones told WWBT. “Ultimately, they came back in on March 22 and redeemed the dog.”

Emma’s owner, Anita Cullop-Thompson, 67, wanted to be interred with her pet, Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service owner Larry Spiaggi told NBC News.

Spiaggi, who is also president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, said he only learned of Cullop-Thompson’s request after his Richmond mortuary handled the woman’s cremation. Over the years, Spiaggi said he’s come across families that have euthanized a late loved one’s pet when the dog or cat was old and couldn’t cope with a new home.

“I do see that point of view, but that wasn’t the case here,” Spiaggi said. “This dog was healthy and friendly, that’s the sad thing about it.

A healthy dog was put to death in Virginia at the behest of its owner, who made the request in her will.

The owner of Emma, a Shih Tzu mix, died March 8. Her dog was held at the Chesterfield Animal Shelter before it was picked up March 22 and then euthanized, NBC affiliate WWBT in Richmond first reported.

Heartbroken animal shelter officials said they had no choice but to turn over Emma to the estate executor, even knowing what was going to happen to her.

“We did suggest they could sign the dog over on numerous occasions, because it’s a dog we could easily find a home for and re-home,” Chesterfield Animal Services manager Carrie Jones told WWBT.

“Ultimately, they came back in on March 22 and redeemed the dog.”

Emma’s owner, Anita Cullop-Thompson, 67, wanted to be interred with her pet, Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service owner Larry Spiaggi told NBC News.

Spiaggi, who is also president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, said he only learned of Cullop-Thompson’s request after his Richmond mortuary handled the woman’s cremation. Over the years, Spiaggi said he’s come across families that have euthanized a late loved one’s pet when the dog or cat was old and couldn’t cope with a new home.

“I do see that point of view, but that wasn’t the case here,” Spiaggi said. “This dog was healthy and friendly, that’s the sad thing about it.”

While many people who have reacted to this matter online have wondered how this can possibly be legal, the reality is that it is clearly legal under Virginia law and most likely under the laws of most other states. Principally, this is because Virginia law provides that pets, like livestock, are considered property. Among other things, this means that if someone kills your dog due to an act of negligence the most you can get in damages is the cost of replacing the animal. There are no damages permitted for “pain and suffering” or any other similar damages that one might be entitled to in the case of the death or injury of a person. The other thing this means is that a pet can, generally speaking, be put down at any time.

The only caveat to these general rules are laws against animal cruelty, but those laws don’t seem to apply in this case. The dog in question was euthanized by a veterinarian and did not suffer when it died. At that point, the legal inquiry into the matter is basically over with the exception that Virginia law forbids human and animal remains to be buried together in public cemeteries, From other news reports, though, it appears that both the late owner and the dog were cremated. While it’s unclear what happened after that, it’s unclear if the ashes of the late owner and her dog were interred somewhere or are simply in an urn or urns at some unknown location. It’s also unclear if the aforementioned law regarding the burial of human and animal remains applies in the case of cremation.

For those who are blaming the executor of the will for all this, it’s worth noting that executors are legally bound to carry out the wishes of the decedent unless there is some law against what the decedent directed in the will, Since that does not appear to be the case here, the executor had no choice but to follow the instructions in the will, although it’s unclear what would’have happened to him or her if they refused to do so, or if there is even a family member that would have taken the Executor to court to force him or her to act. as directed by the will.

Beyond the legal issues, though, this case has also raised some ethical concerns that are worth pondering. For example, is it time to reconsider the general rule that pets are considered property? If we do, though then we have to ask ourselves what they are and how they are to be accounted for. There’s also the issue of whether or not a situation like this, which I will bet has happened before albeit in not such a public manner, is really anyone else’s business. By all accounts, the late owner was very close to her dog and the will reflected her desire to spend eternity with the animal. This isn’t all that different from the cultural attitudes of past cultures where it was common for owners to be buried with their animals. Is it really our place to question it in this case?

I understand the negative reaction to what happened here, and if I were the decedent I would have stated in my will that the dog should be placed with a family member willing to take care of her or placed with a no-kill animal shelter that would help find a new home for her. But that’s my choice. I’m not ready to say that the woman in this case was wrong in the choice that she made.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Society
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. grumpy realist says:

    Pets are considered chattel under existing law. Probably because up until relatively recently, people had enough problems worrying about keeping their own families alive. Animals were even further down the totem pole.

    Heck, IIRC the idea of “not being cruel” to animals didn’t get started until the Victorian period. Remember Elizabethan England and bear-baiting?

    (One of the reasons I really really would prefer that China didn’t end up being top dog because of its lack of ethics in this area–but again, it’s only just recently been able to feed it own people.)

  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    Despite the legalities binding the executor, this is still on him/her. Not sure of the laws in Virginia, but around here anyone who would desire and had standing to see the dog killed would need to file a claim in probate court. Hard to see a judge looking sympathetically on that claim. Besides, how long are you going to keep grandma’s remains around in order to go through probate?

  3. Scott O says:

    Would Anita have euthanized herself if Emma had died first?

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  4. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist: “The Puritans hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.” — Lord Macaulay

  5. Teve says:

    Comment deleted.

  6. Tony W says:

    I don’t know why every time we kill an animal (other than for food) we use the euphemism “euthanized”. In my mind, that term means something on the order of “killed because it was suffering greatly and that was the lesser of the evils available”.

    “Euthanized” used in this context, to kill a perfectly healthy pet because its owner died, seems quite inappropriate

  7. Mister Bluster says:

    I am not a dog guy. I like cats.
    I do not wish ill will on dogs, at least not more than once a day.
    How the owner of Emma could have considered herself a dog lover and still provide for the summary execution of the dog is beyond me.

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  8. grumpy realist says:

    @Mister Bluster: Quite often I think it’s a mental ruthlessness to “clean up and get everything sorted out” when dealing with one’s own death. My father suggested we put our cat down after my mother died. (I was moving to Japan, we were selling the house, and my father was moving to a small apartment.) Everything was getting disposed of in ferocious apple-pie order. Luckily I and my college roommate convinced my father that my roommate’s mom would be perfectly happy to add another cat to the family menagerie. (Cat lived to a ripe old age of 18 years, by the way.)

  9. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    My unpopular take is that there are far more dogs than it would be environmentally healthy. Dogs don’t have natural predators, and simply neutering dogs would not be enough to put their population to a healthy and sustainable number.

  10. Gustopher says:

    What veterinarian agreed to do this? Have they been identified and subjected to a disorganized campaign of poor Yelp reviews, twitter harassment and protests?

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  11. DrDaveT says:

    For example, is it time to reconsider the general rule that pets are considered property?

    We already have. If they were just property, it wouldn’t be illegal to neglect them, much less to torture them.

    I don’t see any workable way to make it illegal to put your dog down for no reason, but not to slaughter your pig/cow/sheep/goat/whatever for food. Distinguishing pets from other livestock is much harder than it sounds.

  12. EddieInCA says:

    @Doug Mataconis

    I’m not ready to say that the woman in this case was wrong in the choice that she made.

    I’d expect nothing less from you. If it’s legal, it’s okay, right?

    I’m ready to say she was wrong. She was totally FU*KING wrong.

    As a dog owner who currently has 3, I am livid about this case, despite knowing there is nothing I can do about it. Any responsible dog owner would make sure that the dog was re-homed to a loving family until he/she died naturally. THEN the dog could be cremated and put to final rest with her late owner.

    I’d love to know the name of the vet that did it, because I’d start some sort of action to make sure they think twice about doing this again.

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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    What I find amusing is the fact that we consider the wishes of people who no longer exist as legally binding on those of us who do still exist. It is absolute lunacy.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    What I find amusing is the fact that we consider the wishes of people who no longer exist as legally binding on those of us who do still exist. It is absolute lunacy.

    I think the owner’s expressed wishes while she was alive as to the disposition of her property, including her pets, should be given due consideration. Had she decided that the dog should go to her middle child rather than her oldest, for example, I think we should acede to that wish, presuming the middle child is willing to take care of the dog and isn’t obviously unfit to do so. But I agree that her wish to kill the dog shouldn’t be honored, simply because it’s offensive to society’s mores.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: I don’t know about you James, but when I die? I won’t care anymore. My only wish is that everyone I love has a good life, but I will have zero say in any of it. If I had my way there wouldn’t even be a funeral, but funerals aren’t for the dead, are they?

  16. Kathy says:

    Pets, at least as far as dogs and cats go, are quasi-members of a family, not just mere property. To a dog, however, you are family, part of the pack, however you feel about them. Some people understand this, some don’t.

    Those who don’t, usually don’t like dogs and/or don’t own dogs. from time to time you get the person who owns a dog, and may even love them, but who doesn’t get it.

    Cats are more complicated, as they don’t need to form deep social bonds. they can form them, they just don’t need to.

  17. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    What I find amusing is the fact that we consider the wishes of people who no longer exist as legally binding on those of us who do still exist.

    So, you think we should scrap the entire notion of wills? I understand the sentiment, but what alternative mechanism for distribution of the deceased’s property do you propose?

  18. Joe says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    What I find amusing is the fact that we consider the wishes of people who no longer exist as legally binding on those of us who do still exist. It is absolute lunacy.

    Wait, whaaat? This is the entire basis of Constitutional strict construction.

  19. Mister Bluster says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:..we consider the wishes of people who no longer exist as legally binding on those of us who do still exist.

    Those whom we’re using cannot think. They are the dead, brought to a simulated life by our electrode guns. You know, it’s an interesting thing when you consider: the Earth people, who can think, are so frightened by those who cannot — the dead.
    Plan 9 From Outer Space

  20. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @James Joyner:

    But I agree that her wish to kill the dog shouldn’t be honored, simply because it’s offensive to society’s mores.

    1) The idea of a society where 43% voted for Donald Trump having mores seems… well quaint comes to mind.
    2) Anybody who actually cared about the dog could have hired a lawyer to challenge the sanity of the testator in demanding a healthy dog be destroyed. Should the court have ruled against said challenge, that rejection would represent another facet of the “society’s” “mores.”
    3) If the local ASPCA doesn’t have a lawyer available to carry their water for them, they need one.