11/19/2010 06:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Target the Hero Dog, and the Progress of Animal Rights

Target the dog was a war hero. Along with his companion Rufus and another dog, Target thwarted a suicide bomber seeking to enter an American military barracks in the Dand Aw Patan district of Afghanistan. Confronting the attempted bomber, the dogs intimidated the trespasser to the point where he discharged his bomb prematurely, injuring no soldiers (but killing the third dog). The two surviving dogs were adopted and transported to the United states, where they received heroes welcomes and loving homes. Target and Rufus lived lives of glamour, with the former even appearing on an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show.

Until Target was killed last Monday.

Settling in nicely with her new family, Target nevertheless was unused to being confined. Unsurprisingly, she wandered off last week, and was picked up by Pinal County, Arizona's animal control. Although Target's owner identified a photo of the dog online and filled out the forms to recover Target, she was put to sleep after an employee accidentally selected the wrong dog for euthanization.

Target was very much a public figure, and is being mourned as such. A public candlelight vigil is planned for Dec. 3. Target also had a Facebook page, on which fans are expressing their sympathy and anger over her untimely death.

Their are potentially productive outcomes from this horrifying situation. Target met her fate in part because she had no tag, microchip or license with Pinal County. If this high profile incident causes more pet owners to microchip their animals, that will be a silver lining.

But there is a fundamental issue that should not be ignored. As presently constituted, animal cruelty laws, instead conferring rights on animals, merely afford them legal protection from unjustified acts of violence by people. Although 41 states plus Washington, D.C. have felony provisions on the books for cases of animal cruelty, rather than protecting animals the focus of these laws is to punish humans who commit acts that fall outside the realm of acceptable behavior. The number of legal statutes that exist to seriously consider the welfare of animals are quite limited, and the issue does not have significant mainstream traction. Case in point, the losing candidate for the Illinois Governorship in the recent midterm elections, Bill Brady, hardly found his candidacy impaired by his previous support in February of this year for a bill that would have allowed for in-state animal control facilities to mass-kill stray cats and dogs in shelters. Obviously, legislation such as this would make mistaken euthanizations -- such as what happened with Target -- all the more commonplace.

It is time for a rethinking of how the law prioritizes animal welfare. This month, voters in Missouri narrowly passed a ballot measure to curtail "puppy mills" by limiting commercial breeders to no more than 50 dogs for breeding, requiring yearly examinations for all dogs held by commercial breeders and mandating proper living space. Statutes such as this, which directly confront and take seriously the issue of animal comfort, represent tangible steps forward. Carrying the punishment of up to 15 days in jail and a $300 fine, however, the law seems relatively toothless on its face, and their are few indications that the movement will spread across the nation.

The issue of euthanization for stray cats and dogs is morally complex. PETA, oft-derided as a coterie of extremists, acknowledges the practice as a necessary evil and cites the potential drawbacks of no-kill shelters, which often find themselves filled to capacity. There is, however, a middle ground that still acknowledges the inherent dignity and rights of these animals. What happened to Target last week was tragic not merely because of its implications for her family -- her owners' four-year-old child reportedly still asks for her -- but because Target possessed her own rights that Pinal County officials trampled upon. Progress will be made when what happened to Target the hero dog last week can accurately be seen as a criminal -- albeit entirely unintentional -- act, and not merely a workplace accident.