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Dogfight over Taro's right to life

PRISONER 914095 on death row at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey is like any other condemned inmate. He has been there overly long - two and a half years - has submitted costly appeals and is awaiting court rulings. A string of psychiatrists and character witnesses have testified on his behalf. But he is not a human being. He is a dog.

The case of Taro, a 110-lb akita, continues to produce more evidence of the extent to which Americans let lawyers run their lives. So far, dollars 50,000 (pounds 33,000) has been spent on the dog's prosecution, dollars 25,000 on his defence. His legal file is now almost 2ft thick. An expert dog panel has been convened. The latest of five legal actions is now heading for the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Taro is now five years old. When he was two and a half he was accused of biting a young girl - the granddaughter of his owner. According to New Jersey law any dog that bites a human must be put down. But the evidence is not straightforward. The prosecution claims it was a bite to the lip, the defence that it was an inadvertent paw swipe. 'If it was a bite,' an akita expert told the Washington Post, 'the girl wouldn't have a face'. The fight over Taro is so fierce that the owners have not spoken to their granddaughter since Christmas 1990.

Akitas, say the experts, are not normally associated with violence toward people. The dog psychiatrist who examined Taro found him to be 'friendly, shy and withdrawn'. And the Akita Rescue Society of America filed an amicus brief on Taro's behalf offering to relocate him to a rehabilitation centre in Canada.

Bred in Japan as hunting and guard dogs, akitas will go for other dogs, however. Taro attacked three dogs before his incarceration - a puppy, a golden retriever, and a Welsh terrier, who died from the encounter. It might be Taro's record against other dogs, as well as his one brush with a human, that decides his fate. If he escapes lethal injection, the mayor of his home town has already made clear he will be banned from living there.