Monday, September 3, 2012

Calling Out Animal Cruelty: Is It Interference or Intervention?

Over coffee this summer, a friend expressed her anger at some nameless person who accused her neighbor of animal cruelty. Animal-control officials visited this neighbor and told her the anonymous caller had reported seeing her dog limping slowly and with great difficulty on a walk. The officials needed to determine why and to what extent the dog’s mobility was impaired.

I understood my friend’s ire on behalf of her neighbor. The truth was that the dog was ancient and suffering from arthritis. The dog’s guardian had not been able to make the necessary end-of-life decision she knew it was time for. Yes, the dog was in pain—which the woman and her vet were trying to manage—but the cause was not what the anonymous caller had imagined.

I told my friend what I’d heard the previous month at a public forum regarding the Kentucky Livestock Care Standards Commission. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Horse Council derided every concerned citizen who had ever lodged complaints against horse businesses. She said outsiders were uninformed about equine care and they reported things like deep spring mud and summer fly masks as neglect and cruelty, respectively. In the context of the forum, she was drawing a line between farms/the equine industry and animal welfare advocates. Like my friend’s neighbor, this representative for horses (well, really for the horse industry) viewed outsiders as annoyances—meddlers who stirred up trouble where there wasn’t any.

I can sympathize with both women. It’s frustrating and hurtful to be accused of something you didn’t do. It’s time-consuming to deal with such issues and to set the record straight.

But I think about a comment I read last year on the Web. The commenter described a dog tied up in an Alabama backyard—a dog who had no shelter, no exercise, no freedom of movement, no food, and no water. The writer meant to vilify the dog’s “guardian” for neglect, but in the end, readers learned that the writer witnessed this scene for an entire YEAR on his/her way to work and not once reported it to authorities. The dog starved to death, its body left in the backyard to decompose.

Now I’d like to ask Ms. Kentucky Horse Council Spokesperson: Is it better that citizens say nothing about what they see?

Sometimes … no, actually too frequently citizens report neglect or cruelty only to find that authorities do nothing. Cricket (who is pictured on the right of the photo with her new friends, one of whom is wearing a fly mask, at Catskill Animal Sanctuary; her rescue last year was reported on Lull) was once chained to a tree—with no accessible food or water in sight—on the farm she shared with other ill-cared-for animals. Passersby noticed first, then animal-rescue folks got involved, and though all these caring people jumped through every legal hoop required, the authorities took ONE YEAR before acting on the complaints. Turns out Cricket’s “guardian” was the very same hoarder who had surrendered animals to Catskill Animal Sanctuary 10 years earlier! New farm, new critters, same psycho. (My apologies to hoarders for my harsh language. I realize hoarding is an illness. But I also know that without medical attention, you will not change.)

Again, Ms. Kentucky Horse Council Spokesperson: When a horse is tethered to a tree by a short chain that not only prohibits her movements but bores into her flesh, should nonhorsepeople keep their mouths shut because they know so little about horses? Should concerned citizens refrain from getting involved in case they’ve misinterpreted the situation?

I think not. Clearly, we need authorities (legislators, animal-control agencies, police, judges, lawyers) who are better informed about animal welfare, who take it seriously, and who take action when it’s required. But we also need more “meddlers” who have the courage to speak out for those who cannot. Some of their reports may be off-base (as was the case with the geriatric pooch described above, though the woman said the event nudged her into making the right decision for her dog); but others will be valid cases demanding immediate involvement. It’s possible that behind the neglected animal is also a neglected senior or child. It’s also possible that behind a neglected animal are people in dire circumstances who could use assistance themselves. Or maybe, as in the case of the Pit Bull guardian I yelled at last year, the person is simply uninformed/misinformed about the care of the animal.

Sometimes intervention IS interference. But in the long run, we can tolerate it, can’t we? Let’s let the meddlers speak* and let’s hear what they have to say. Let’s SEE what’s happening around us—notice the vulnerable amongst us and have the backbone to speak out on their behalf.

* Please, oh puhleeze check out the story of Mr. Chips at The Literary Horse, in which Mr. Chips discovers bliss and attracts the Long Arm of the Law. But choose carefully where you read this tale: Laughter is guaranteed. (In fact, I encourage you to read every Mr. Chips tale in the series.)

[Photo of 17-year-old pooch taken in Montana by Nancy LeVine and included in her book, Senior Dogs Across America.]

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