Cassandra Burch returned to her home in Waldorf one Sunday in April to find her rabbit Sammy slain in the grass, his fence bashed in and the neighbor's American pit bull fleeing the yard.

Two months later, after passing through phases of grief and guilt, she was ready for justice.

So Burch filed an animal complaint against neighbor Stephen Pettko and brought him before Charles County's Animal Matters Hearing Board, a forum where strict legal protocol trumps the laws of nature.

The hearing board can try cases involving all types of animals -- dogs, cats, rabbits, cows, horses and ducks -- but it is most assuredly not a kangaroo court.

"You can sit in District Court and hear murder, rape and divorce cases, and they are not as emotional as these cases," said board Vice Chairman Jerome M. Butkiewicz, who has been on the board about 14 years. "Pets are part of the family, which is why it becomes so emotional."

In many jurisdictions, animal cases go to District Court, but Charles County established the Animal Matters Hearing Board to lighten the court's docket. Sentences can be appealed to Circuit Court.

Animal hearing boards with varying degrees of authority also exist in Montgomery, Howard, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

On the first Tuesday of each month, the Charles board hears arguments in cases in which animal control officers issued citations against citizens; on the third Tuesday, it hears complaints between neighbors. The latter sessions can get extremely emotional.

Burch and Pettko didn't know what to expect when they came to animal court.

Burch always has been a rabbit person and said you can train them with better results than dogs and sometimes even better than children. "People think it's just a rabbit; it's not," she told the board.

For Burch, Sammy was "like a family member." She entered into evidence 15 photographs showing the rabbit kissing the family's cat, playing under a Christmas tree and splashing in a bathtub. Other photos showed the destruction done to his pen's fence.

A month after the trial, Burch said she still feels guilty that the pen didn't allow Sammy more places to hide.

"He was too scared to go up in the hutch to protect himself, so the dog got in and killed him," she said in an interview. "I cried for weeks."

The hearing board, however, does not deal in feelings; it takes its legal role seriously. Even though evidence pointed to Pettko's dog, there were no eyewitnesses, as Pettko noted in his cross-examination.

"How do you know it was my dog, actually?" he asked, turning to his right to face Burch. "It could have been, but you didn't see it."

The board members agreed with Pettko. After 10 minutes of deliberation, they rejected the charges that his dog was dangerous and vicious and that it had destroyed someone's property.

But Burch was satisfied, too, for Pettko earlier had pleaded guilty to having his dog at large.

"I just wanted on record that his dog got out of the yard," Burch said.

If both parties in this case left satisfied, they are perhaps an exception. The board's every session is filled with contentious cases.

In one, Gaynor Glessner-Robben said that her cat Ariel was killed by Buster, her neighbors' chow.

An English-born resident of Waldorf, Glessner-Robben said in an interview that she was "not at all impressed" by the court because of its "expectation that we all know how courts run and know what 'sustained' means," she said.

It was bad enough that her cat had been killed, she told the board, but on top of that, she said her neighbor, Kenny Wells, stuffed the animal into a bag and drove it to a construction dumpster, thus depriving her two children of a chance to pay their respects.

"They couldn't even bury the cat they had for eight years," she said.

Wells said that Glessner-Robben asked him to take the cat away from her yard because she couldn't bear to see it.

The board found that the dog had killed the cat, and Wells promised to appeal.

Animal board sessions can stretch late into the night -- some hearings have come to an end only because a burglar alarm goes on automatically just before midnight in the Charles County Government Building, Butkiewicz said.

Death sentences are rare -- in the past 14 years, the board has handed down no more than 10, according to Butkiewicz -- but Dominique N. Smith's dog received one of them.

Her pit bull Remy killed a Siberian husky in Waldorf in April and was accused of being vicious and dangerous, a legal term that qualifies it to be euthanized.

Smith told the court that the night before the attack, her dog was restless. She had tied him up as usual, but he kept trying to get free, so she went out to inspect.

"I saw an animal in our back yard, and I'm not sure if that's why," she said, stopping just short of mentioning the attack. "He was a very territorial dog. He loved humans. But there was another dog in our yard, and that might have caused him to attack," she added, already speaking of her dog in the past tense.

Her dog would be sentenced to be euthanized after a short deliberation, but before that, she had a chance to plead for its life. All the legal ceremony of the court gave way. The cross-examinations and entering of evidence didn't matter anymore. The only thing left was a stricken pet owner, futilely professing her love of and fear for her dog.

"My dog is a very, very good dog," Smith said. "I don't know what exactly to say to make you guys realize how important he is to me."

Tim and Cassandra Burch help cat Lucy get acquainted with new rabbit Baby. Cassandra went to an animal board after she found their other rabbit slain.