Beloved Companions or Just Property?

There’s a dramatic story in the news this week that elicits powerful emotions from me and probably will do the same for all DSD readers. The story goes back almost a year and a half and raises questions about our pets’ place in society, our moral obligations to them, our relationship to the laws that govern us, and the power of compassion. I don’t know the whole story. I’ve only read about it. I find it both very upsetting, though, and very compelling.

Tammy Grimes runs Dogs Deserve Better, an advocacy group dedicated to “freeing the chained dog, and bringing our 'best friend' into the home and family.” Ending the practice of keeping dogs on chains for much – or, all too often, even all – of their lives, may seem like a pretty limited issue, but anyone who works in animal welfare or training can tell you how damaging life on a chain can be to a dog’s physical and mental health as well as the safety of those around them. Getting dogs off chains is a good cause.

In September of 2006, Tammy Grimes got a call from a woman named Kim Eicher asking for help. Eicher told Grimes that her neighbors’ dog Doogie, who lived on a chain, had been lying in the yard unable to get up for 3 days. She had been calling the local humane society for 3 days and, on Grimes’ recommendation also left messages with the local humane officer. She received no response. Later that same day, Dogs Deserve Better received a second call about Doogie from another neighbor.

Grimes agreed to go out and see what she could do. She went out with fellow volunteers and found Doogie in terrible shape. Doogie greeted his would-be rescuers graciously, struggly to stand up. He couldn’t. He suffered from malnutrition, sores, and painful bone spurs. (Click to see video and pictures of how they found him here, but don’t do it at work unless you feel comfortable crying or getting really angry.)

Doogie’s owners weren’t home, and Grimes decided that he needed immediate care. They took him to the vet, where they met the local humane officer on his way to check on Doogie. The humane officer agreed that Tammy should get Doogie the vet care he needed, left, and asked that she call him later on his cell. Tammy had Doogie treated, took him home, and cleaned him up. When the humane officer returned her call, he asked Tammy to return the dog. She told him of the conditions in which they’d found Doogie, asked him to view her video and pictures, and consider opening a cruelty investigation. The officer, Grimes says, showed no interest at all. He just wanted her to return Doogie to his owners.

This is where the story gets special. Grimes refused. Later that evening 3 police cars came to her house demanding the dog. She refused to return him or to reveal his whereabouts. They arrested her. To fast forward through the rest of the story, Grimes placed Doogie with a foster family where he lived his last 5 or 6 months the way a dog should live. His health improved with treatment and he got to run, play, and explore the world a bit. Most importantly, he lived with people who loved and cared for him. The local authorities continued their refusal to even consider a cruelty investigation, but they have pursued Grimes aggressively for her actions.

After a lot of publicity and legal maneuvering, Grimes was convicted of theft and receiving stolen property this past December. The legal case was pretty clear-cut. Dogs in PA, and far as I know everywhere, are legally defined solely as property. The state has anti-cruelty statutes, but they don’t change the legal status of the dog. The law makes no distinction between Doogie and a bicycle or lawnmower, and thus gives Grimes no legal justification for rescuing Doogie from his hellish existence and possible imminent death.

Something is definitely wrong with laws that make Grimes the criminal in this story. Much of the blame lies with the local officials who refused to even consider enforcing state cruelty laws, but much of it also comes from a deep divide in how our culture views animals in general, and pets in particular. For many people, animals are simply property and any attempt to interfere with another’s property – regardless of reason – is offensive. Others would abolish the concept of ownership completely in favor of guardianship and legislation of legal rights for pets and other animals. I think I come down somewhere in the middle.

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the idea of legally becoming guardians to our pets rather than owners. I’ve seen far too many terrible mistakes when government gets into the realm of regulating pet care, so I’m skeptical of going beyond some minimal standards. That said, I think that there have to be strong enforceable felony anti-cruelty laws to stop obvious abuse, a ban on dogs living on chains, and some sort of Good Samaritan law to allow for animals to be rescued from intolerable circumstances. I don’t know all the answers, but we clearly have a long way to go.

I don’t know Tammy Grimes, either, but she’s a hero to me. The relief she brought Doogie in his last months, at considerable personal cost, was a tremendous kindness. I don’t know if she’s in the habit of being a hero, or if the thought of taking Doogie back to die where she had found him was just intolerable, but she unquestionably did the right thing. In the broader context of all the suffering in this world and all people standing up to injustice, Tammy’s act was a small one, but no less admirable for that. Moments like the one when police came to Tammy Grimes' door demanding Doogie’s return are when a person finds out who she really is. Grimes can certainly take pride in how she handled this one.

Grimes will be sentenced in PA on Friday. She has said she will not pay a fine or do community service for what she did. If they want to punish her, she wants them to do it without her cooperation and jail her. I wonder if the DA wouldn’t have just dropped this if he had known who he was dealing with. If you’re in the area, I know they’re hoping for supporters to turn out at the courthouse Friday. If not, visit Dogs Deserve Better on the web and show ‘em some love. It sounds like they’re doing very good work.

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