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A death sentence is rescinded, and the heart rejoices


The talk last week at the local beauty shop was all about crime.

Or to be precise, about crime and punishment and the fate of one particular prisoner sentenced to death three years ago but now about to be released.

Here's the deal: After spending 1,000 days on death row in Bergen County, N.J., prisoner No. 914095 -- described by his psychiatrist as shy and withdrawn -- was granted clemency by New Jersey's Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

And Willie Horton-ism notwithstanding, the women waiting in the shampoo room last week couldn't conceal their elation over the governor's decision to release prisoner No. 914095.

"It's about time," said one.

"It was not a fair sentence because he was provoked beyond his control," said another.

By the way, did I mention that this discussion took place at the Pamper My Pet Wash 'n Groom Shoppe? And that the hair being washed belonged to poodles and spaniels? And that prisoner No. 914095 is a dog?

A famous dog, I should add. His case has attracted worldwide attention.

His name is Taro and his troubles with the law began on Christmas Day 1990 when he bit his owner's 10-year-old niece. His owners, Lonnie and Sandy Lehrer, contend their niece had provoked Taro, a 5-year-old Akita.

When New Jersey officials learned the dog had bitten the girl, Taro was seized and ordered destroyed under the state's vicious-dog law. But Mr. Lehrer, an accountant, was not about to let Taro go gently into that good night. Over the last three years, he has spent about $40,000 in legal fees, trying to save the family dog.

The cost to the local government? About $60,000 to cover court fees, boarding fees and dog food.

By the time recently elected Gov. Whitman got around to granting clemency to Taro, his case had become more than just a financial burden to her state. It had become an affair of the heart.

In a time filled with stories about the likes of the Bobbitts and the Menendezes -- stories that make the heart grow cold and distant -- there was something about the sight of this isolated dog lying in a pen that thawed out the human heart.

You could say: "It's silly to care this much about a dog."

And maybe you'd be right.

Or you could say: "How can we justify spending this kind of money on a dog when so many bad things are happening in the world?"

And you'd certainly have a point.

Just as my mother -- and yours, too, probably -- had a point when she'd tell me to clean my plate because children in India were starving.

But one thing -- cleaning my plate -- really had nothing to do with the other.

Because one thing was specific; the other abstract.

And it is always the specific thing that moves us.

As in the case of one dog, Taro. He is real to us in a way that a thousand dogs never could be. And we are moved by his plight.

He becomes, you might say, our dog.

tTC This is obvious in the response to Taro's future. The dog did not get off scot-free. The same governor's order that spared his life also exiled him from the state of New Jersey forever. (A fate some two-legged animals might consider in an extremely positive light.)

Since the announcement that Taro is to be exiled, adoption offers have come in from all over the world.

His owners announced they would base their decision on two factors. "Taro's going to be protected, he's going to go to a loving family who cares about the dog, not the celebrity," Mr. Lehrer told the New York Times. "And I want to be able to visit him."

So there it is. I want to be able to visit him. The chord that sounds out the deep, primitive bond that has existed between humankind and dogkind for 10,000 years.

Humans seem to need dogs as companions. Even the Chinese government -- which once again is attempting to ban dogs as pets -- recognizes this need. They've opened a legal dog zoo near Beijing where anyone can rent a dog for $1 an hour and walk it through the park.

Dogs, however, have given up something in allowing themselves to be annexed by humans. They have allowed us to domesticate them and take away many of the wild traits that once protected them.

But they need us, too. And, perhaps, the case of Taro reminded us of our responsibility to creatures of a different -- but not lesser -- nature.

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