Still Thinking About Dogs (and Cats Too)

Bruce Wagman

There’s so many issues that come up with dogs that I am still thinking about them.  And much of this applies to cats as well.  Let me be clear to start that I live with three dogs, five cats and one wife, and it’s the rare event that I get to sleep on my pillow (because Nzuri beats me there every night) or stretch out my legs (Rafiki) or get near the middle of the bed (Paka, Sybil).  And the ones that are not there are sleeping not just on the couches, but actually on special beds that sit atop the couches, because those big-pillowed couches are just too hard for the cats and dogs to sleep on without some other cushion.  So I am certainly a canine and feline worshipper.  The smell and feel of dog or cat fur are nectar and succor; and if one of them decides to perch on me, their presence freezes time.

And the law seems to feel the same way – that they are somehow elevated above all other animals.  In many states there are special laws that deal with dogs and cats and arguably provide them greater protection.  And we have incorporated them into so many parts of our society.  I think in moving forward with animal law, they can very well be a gateway species for us.  What I mean is that if we bring a “good” dog case to the courts – one with terrible abuse and suffering and a cute and loving dog – I think it is more likely that a jury or court will find that the law favors the animals, as opposed to if the exact same scenario occurred with a snake or bird.  And while there is a good argument that great apes and especially chimpanzees present that opportunity for a court to empathize (because chimpanzees are so like us in so many ways) with an abuse situation, I think dogs are the key.  Because we can be fairly certain (and happy) that no one on your jury, and no judge, has a chimpanzee sleeping at the foot of her bed.  But she may have a dog or, at the very least, she has friends who have dogs, and she knows about that bond.  She believes in its vitality and validity.  It’s really that connection that could help turn the tide on many of the issues we are fighting.

I get many students who come to animal law because of their passion for dogs, or because they are outraged at breed specific litigation, and who care deeply about animals.  And the folks I have worked with in dog and cat rescue groups are as committed as anyone to making sure the lives of every animal they save are made better and they are given “forever homes” that will somehow correct the harm and suffering they have experienced.  And the law in over thirty states protects dogs and cats, but allows us to commit acts that would be felony cruelty on billions of animals each year.  And the Farm Sanctuary phrase that is so telling comes to mind – Why do we love animals called pets and eat animals called dinner?  Or my variation on it — why do we feed one and eat the other?  If the cruelty laws are intended to prevent humans’ callous treatment of innocent beings, why does the law think there is a difference between a cow and a dog, a pig and a cat?  They are different species, and the cow and pig are not domesticated enough to live in our house and sleep on the couch.  But if we are compelled to enforce laws against the torture of dogs and cats because of (presumably) the way they feel when that happens, because of their suffering, then why does the law feel just fine when it sanctions the food industry’s abuse of animals?  Because I can assure you that the standard treatment of most farmed animals in America is exponentially worse than the majority of the most egregious cases involving dogs and cats. 

But there we are, and that’s the point.  They are dogs, and cats, and the law makes a distinction in what is allowed and what is prohibited, based on species.  We don’t eat companion animals, so we feed them and protect them.  We don’t like to eat horses, but at the same time we stage no strong objection if our dogs’ food contains horsemeat.  And things I would never let you do to my dog are completely legal for you or me to do to my pig.  My point here is only that animal law is full of challenging contradictions that demonstrate the duality our society exhibits when it comes to animals.  Regardless of the propriety of eating animals, the conundrum cannot be escaped.

In the realm of companion animal cruelty, the “best” cases, as I mentioned yesterday, are those in which animal hoarders are stopped.  Animal hoarding or “collecting” is the greatest threat to companion animals in America, and estimates put the number of animals affected each year at 250,000.  It occurs everywhere, and involves the warehousing of animals in conditions of neglect and deprivation that result in chronic pain and suffering, psychological torment and sometimes death.   The life of a hoarded animal can truly be worse than their death, unless they are rescued.     Entering a hoarding situation is like being thrown into a chamber of horrors more frightening than anything you might imagine.  The smell of ammonia (from months or years of uncleaned surfaces, soaked through with urine and feces) is almost physical, and the air is toxic, caustic, burning eyes and nose and throat.  Their jaws and teeth often rot out of their heads due to poor hygiene – their jaws will break and then reset without veterinary care.   Their eyes are especially susceptible, and the toxic fumes of their own excretions, left for months, will literally burn their eyes into blindness.  And remember, they feel pain exactly like we do, so just imagine having a broken jaw and not being treated at all.  The torture of hoarding is truly beyond comprehension.  

When we arrive onsite at a hoarding hell, the animals are either wildly manic to see us and escape, or nearly catatonic in their abject dejection and loss of hope, after living their lives in a cage for an extended period and being deprived of even the most basic human contact, something that animals like dogs and (most) cats absolutely need.  Sometimes they are feral, or injured beyond repair, and the only merciful thing is to send them on their way.  But in the best situations, we can get them out of there and into happy permanent homes.

But what do you do with 40, or 400, or 1000 animals who are untrained, often sick, and homeless?  That question and its nearly impossible answer is one of the reasons that hoarding continues.  Local communities are unable to deal with the problems and so often look the other way, paralyzed with the possibility of seizing that many animals.  In the Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Woodley case, the small town of Sanford, North Carolina where the Woodleys lived had an animal control facility with 8 kennels.  The Woodleys, when we first discovered them, had over 450 dogs (and 21 birds).  Local authorities are reticent to get involved in these situations for the sheer burden of dealing with the situation, both on a practical/welfare front and on a legal front.

The courtroom fight can be overwhelming as well.  If they have resources, hoarders will fight as hard as any party to win their case.  And because these are crimes of neglect, and not usually affirmative beating or abuse, it becomes that much harder to prove animal cruelty because of the level of intent required by most statutes.  Hoarding cases, despite the level of suffering, require careful legal analysis and professional testimony to prove that the conduct alleged rises to the level to satisfy the statutory requirements.  And most prosecutors are neither well-versed in cruelty issues, nor able to appreciate the nuances and evidentiary problems that may arise.

Hoarding cases require massive teams – lawyers, rescue workers, foster parents, and community support.  But probably the single most important person in getting a successful legal result in hoarding cases, cruelty cases, and any number of animal law cases, is a veterinarian.  The lawyers can be replaced, the rescuers are crucial and do the most grueling, day-in and day-out work, but without veterinarians these cases would be nowhere near as successful.  And you may be thinking that I mean they are needed to care for the animals because they are so sick.  And while that is a crucial aspect of what they do, they have a dual role, which may be what makes them so important.  It is the veterinarians who provide the most crucial, most credible and most compelling testimony at trial.  They are able to explain to judge and jury how animal physiology works, and why there is no question of the degree of pain and suffering.  They can describe illnesses and prognosis, and injuries and treatment.  It is their truth that will convince a trier of fact that something must be done.  In the Woodley case, we had 7 veterinarians testifying.  Central to the entire case was one of the most motivated and selfless humans I have ever met, Dr. Laureen Bartfield.  Cornered on the phone by me one day before Christmas eve, she agreed to be investigator, fact collector, triage and care coordinator, and then central witness in the case.  The veterinarian at trial needs to not only be able to explain the evidence and turn medical terminology into lay terms, she also needs to withstand the cross-examination and attack of opposing counsel.  Dr. Bartfield started a mobile low cost spay-neuter clinic in order to carry out her vision of decreasing the numbers of unwanted animals (SNAP-NC), and she provided her testimony at trial with the same clearness of vision.  Dr. Kelli Ferris brought a team of North Carolina State veterinary students to examine and evaluate all the dogs rescued in that case, and then provided testimony at trial.  They are two angels of mercy, as are each and every veterinarian who offers their services to help us.  We couldn’t do it without them.  They do not just treat, they do not just stand and cry with us.  Most important of all, through their sworn statements, they literally bring the suffering animals into the courtroom.  They describe what it feels like to literally starve to death.  They put into evidence the torment of neglect, they bring the cries and the affliction of hoarded animals to the judge and jury, put that agony front and center.  They make us cry and feel.  They give a voice to the silent howls and the final whimpers of dying dogs and cats, and horses and chimpanzees.  

These cases seem endless and overwhelming.  Hundreds and hundreds of pages of medical records, of pictures to place in evidence, of dogs to catalogue and cross-reference.  And then to get to good homes.  Numbing, they are still the best companion animal cases, because of the payoff.

I guess I think about dogs and cats all the time.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for shedding some light on this enormous problem… As I understand much of NC still gasses and uses the heart stabbing method of disposing of cats and dogs. No wonder you’re profession takes such a heavy emotional toll…

    Even if Nzuri beats you to your pillow – Your mind should rest soundly knowing you are a champion for those who need it so. Thanks for all you do!

  2. Hoarding of animals without proper care and not being able to give each of them the attention they so long to have is cruelty and not worthy of our human spirit. I know of a different and almost crueler way that animals are treated. Let me explain.

    I live in the country and have numerous animals, most have come my way as a mature being. I go through a lot of feed, especially for cats at the barn. My policy is ‘everybody eats and they each have their own dish’ so if a stray comes by they can keg up for the winter in the hay and have two meals a day. The cruelty come is when people dump their animals, who have usually lived in their house or apartment all their lives, with the mistaken idea that ‘the farmer’ will take care of them. Well we do take care of them with feed and a place to sleep in the hay but not all of them make it to the barn and when they do, it still takes some time to gain their trust.

    I was in a hurry to a meeting on my way to town one cold day this last January when I spied a beautiful tuxedo cat standing in the road looking toward the south as if he was looking after someone who drove away. I figured I might see him around that evening and could maybe bring him into the fold and offer him something. Before I could get back from town, he had been hit and killed. I would make a savy guess that he was not used to cars or he walked in front of a vehicle thinking it would stop. I don’t know, but I was very saddened. He was not the only one I have taken from the side/center of our country road to a nearby pet cemetary in our orchard. This is another form of cruelty being visited on a trusting pet by a human that should know better. If you no longer want your pet, take them to a humane society so they at least have a chance for adoption and the people at the humane societies have a love for animals, else they would not put in their time and attention on so many.

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