Stop that dog from sucking eggs

Published 7:25 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2017

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To “stop that dog from sucking eggs” has always meant to break someone of a very bad habit.

The habit — of dogs, that is — is a real one and back when chickens and other fowl routinely roamed barnyards and their eggs were often laid in unsecure places, dogs would sometimes bite into one. Once they did, they were often hooked, and breaking them of woofing down eggs was difficult, if not impossible.

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What I didn’t know until I began looking for some background for this rather commonplace saying was that there was a court case in Mississippi that quite literally dealt with a dog sucking eggs. It’s Hull V. Scruggs, a Mississippi Supreme Court decision written in 1941. It’s an entertaining read.

The Mississippi case began when one C.G. Hull shot and killed a dog owned by his neighbor, W.W. Scruggs.

Scruggs sued Hull, and Hull testified that he had complained to Scruggs and repeatedly and by various means tried to keep Scruggs’ dog from eating (sucking is the description normally used) eggs laid by Hull’s chickens. Frustrated, Hull eventually killed Scruggs’ dog.

A local Circuit Court judge ordered a jury to find in Scruggs’ favor, which it dutifully did. Hull appealed the verdict against him and Supreme Court Judge Virgil A. Griffith wrote that court’s opinion, overturning the jury’s verdict. His opinion is a classic in rural understanding and justice.

“… we proceed to a determination of the controversy upon undisputed evidence of facts and circumstances which conclusively disclose that, throughout the period of three weeks aforesaid, the dog sucked all the eggs which were laid by the turkeys and guineas on defendant’s premises and that his presence there was of sufficient frequency or continuity, both day and night, that none of the eggs were left until after the dog was killed.”

Judge Griffith went on to describe the well-known habit:

“It is a fact of common knowledge that when a dog has once acquired the habit of egg-sucking there is no available way by which he may be broken of it, and that there is no calculable limit to his appetite in the indulgence of the habitual propensity.”

After a more thorough evaluation of the destructive habit, and Scruggs’ efforts to break his neighbor’s dog of it, Judge Griffith wrote:

“What else was there reasonably left but to kill the animal? There was nothing else; and we reject the contention, which seems to be the main ground taken by appellee, that admitting all that has been said, the dog could not lawfully be killed except while in the actual commission of the offense.”

While in most animal predation cases, catching the animal in the act is required, Judge Griffith opined that, egg sucking dogs are far too sneaky:

“… the owner of the premises is not required to wait and watch with a gun until he can catch the predatory dog in the very act. Such a dog would be far more watchful than would the watcher himself, and the depredation would not occur again until the watcher had given up his post and had gone about some other task, but it would then recur, and how soon would be a mere matter of opportunity.”

Case closed.

Now, lest you think Judge Griffith was some folksy yahoo lawyer, let me add that this was not his only prominent legal writing. He had earlier taken on what posed for justice in rural Mississippi at the time when he wrote a blistering dissent in a case in which the Mississippi high court upheld a murder conviction based on the torture-induced confession of three black defendants.

While his view didn’t prevail in his own court, the U.S. Supreme Court later vindicated the judge by reversing the Mississippi court’s decision. That opinion, far more important than the egg-sucking dog, is also worth reading. It is Brown v. State, 173 Miss. (1935).