CARSON CITY — The Nevada Supreme Court often must decide matters of life and death, such as cases involving death row inmates.
Less common are such weighty matters involving the life of a dog.
That will be the case Wednesday when the full seven-member court considers the fate of a 6-year-old, 120-pound, tan and black mastiff mixed breed named Onion.
Henderson officials decided to euthanize Onion after he killed a 1-year-old boy in 2012. The Lexus Project, an animal rights group based in New York, is trying to save Onion and move him to a Colorado sanctuary.
Meanwhile, Onion awaits his fate as he remains in solitary confinement at the Henderson Animal Care and Control Facility.
Las Vegas animal rights advocate Gina Greisen, president of Nevada Voters for Animals, said she remains concerned that Onion has been kept in a cage for more than a year, without exercise or human interaction.
It could be several more months before the court rules on the case, she said.
Henderson city spokesman Bud Cranor said Onion is under constant care, supervised by trained professionals and overseen by a veterinarian who ensures he receives care and treatment required by law.
Greisen said city officials should have allowed the dog to go to a sanctuary rather than spend so much time and expense fighting the effort in court.
She said that she has seen owners appeal vicious dog decisions as far as District Court, but that a case going all the way to the state Supreme Court is rare.
The major legal issue in the case is whether Lexus Project president and co-founder Robin Mittasch has legal authority to act on Onion’s behalf though the project doesn’t own him.
A lower court ruled against the animal rights group, resulting in Lexus’ appeal. The state high court will hear oral arguments in the case and rule later.
The case has generated a lot of attention from the news media, particularly in Southern Nevada. But the dispute has not seen any legal involvement from other groups, either in favor of or in opposition to Onion’s fate.
And there is more than one canine fan on the court.
Chief Justice Kris Pickering has filed a voluntary disclosure indicating she donates to local and national humane societies and the Texas Border Collie Rescue, among other related groups.
Pickering said she disclosed the information should a party in the case wants to request that she recuse herself from the case. She said she has no bias in the matter.
Other justices are dog owners too.
“Some justices have dogs as their cherished pets, just as many other Nevadans do,” court spokesman Bill Gang said. “Their personal pet ownership, however, is not relevant to the legal issues involved in the case.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
The Henderson incident could not be more tragic.
According to court papers, on April 27, 2012, Jeremiah Eskew-Shahan was celebrating his birthday with his father, grandmother and other family members at their Henderson home.
Onion was celebrating a birthday too, and both received presents, including squeak toys for Onion, according to the appeal filed by attorneys for the Lexus Project.
Onion had become a family member as a puppy, serving as an emotional therapy dog to help Jeremiah’s grandmother, Elizabeth Keller, keep her spirits up while battling lung cancer.
Onion had been around Jeremiah all of his life and had never snapped or growled at the boy, the family said.
About 10 p.m., Keller was putting Jeremiah to bed but thought he wanted to say good night to Onion. Jeremiah tripped and fell onto Onion, who was resting in a dark room. Onion grabbed and shook Jeremiah.
The child was severely injured in the brief attack, including having the right side of his face torn from his forehead down to his chin. He died from his injuries.
An officer from Henderson Animal Care and Control arrived at the scene, and Keller signed a document giving ownership to the agency and allowing Onion to be euthanized as a vicious dog.
Keller, citing the chaos at the home when she signed the document, then asked the Lexus Project to get involved to try to save Onion’s life.
The Lexus Project created a trust for the benefit of Onion and sought a temporary restraining order in Clark County District Court to stop his death.
The efforts were rejected by District Judge Joanna Kishner in a ruling in 2012, but Onion’s future was put on hold pending the Supreme Court review.
The Nevada animal trust statute “permits any person having a demonstrated interest in the welfare of the animal beneficiary” to be appointed as trustee, the attorneys for Onion said in their appeal to the court.
Ownership is not required, they argue.
HENDERSON: PUBLIC SAFETY ISSUE
The Henderson city attorney’s office said in its response that the court does not even have jurisdiction over the dispute because Lexus is not an aggrieved party in the matter.
“Because Lexus has never, and cannot now establish any right in the dog, it cannot possibly demonstrate that its personal or property rights were adversely affected by any ruling made by the District Court,” the response said.
The Henderson officials’ response said the dog continued to show aggression when being examined by the city veterinarian.
Cranor said that although there are costs and time involved in continuing with the case rather than simply releasing the dog to Lexus, the overriding issue is public safety.
There is a concern that the dog could remain a public safety threat even if it was released to a sanctuary, he said.
MORE GRIEF PREDICTED
But Lexus general counsel and co-founder Richard Rosenthal said nothing can be gained by putting Onion to death.
“The death of a child is an absolute tragedy, but it was an accident, not an intentional attack,” he said.
Euthanizing Onion will only cause the family to grieve all over again, Rosenthal said.
“The family raised the dog from 4 or 5 weeks old. His death will only exacerbate their pain,” he said.
If there was the potential to place the dog with another family, then the decision by the city of Henderson might have merit, Rosenthal said.
But the plan for Onion is to let him live out his days with other animals, he said.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900.ONION HEARING
The 30-minute oral arguments on the fate of Onion will be at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Nevada Supreme Court in Carson City, 201 S. Carson St. But anyone interested in the legal debate can tune in and listen.
Oral arguments are streamed live on the Nevada Supreme Court website. The link to access the webcast will become active about five minutes before the arguments are scheduled to begin. The webcast is not archived, but a podcast of the arguments will be posted and archived on the webpage, usually by the end of the day of arguments.