Friday, October 24, 2008

Three months: nobody's priority

There comes a time when you find yourself unable to utter a word, let alone write, not because you don't have anything to say, but because you have already said so much to so many without any shred of a discernible effect, as far as real results are concerned. I am a usually very expressive. Okay, I talk too much and write too much, just like I used to eat too much. Not anymore. Eating is a chore. Fighting is a bore. Writing is painful. I am sick and tired of it. I feel like I am trying to free a suspected terrorist. All I want is my dog back. Just a dog. I will happily promise we won't bother anybody ever again. If I survive.

Folks love to say, "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger." There may be some truth in this, but I wouldn't advise believing it until you have actually survived something. Till then it's anybody's bet. You might become stronger, or you might be thoroughly crushed. The best you can do then, I suppose, is pray for acceptance, try to forgive, and somehow, some way, move on, trying to avoid the same thing. I don't know or care about that right now; I can't see past today. And today, well, frankly, today really, really sucks.

Two days ago I drove the stretch of highway and bridges to Halifax in the gray rain, listened to people talking about dogs and how to control and regulate and protect them, and then drove home again. Fortunately I had some company in the car; otherwise, I am not sure I would have made it back. I totally forgot to check CTV news, both evening broadcasts. (I missed the news because I was watching a PBS program on the 1968 Chicago Ten trial, wow! Where are those Yippies when you need 'em?) I had attended the SPCA press conference in the afternoon, and afterwards reporter Kelland Sundahl interviewed me, but wasn't certain if I would be included in the broadcast. Probably a good thing; I may have been more outspoken than my lawyer would like. That evening I went to a "flow yoga" class and fought back the emotions rising, as they always do during yoga, while the mind is focusing on breathing. The rest of the time I leave my "self" on autopilot, and by that I mean a numbness impenetrable to any to-do list, the coming winter, my finances, work, housecleaning, or anything else, other than TV and the occasional meal. More awareness-engaging activity, including this blog, threatens to set me into hysterics. As soon as my brain is working comes the risk of grasping reality again and my reality, forgive me for saying again, really, really sucks. Still I have had a lot of hysterics, perhaps too much or not enough. My dog is not dead, yet I grieve terribly, for time lost, for suffering, for what may yet come. Some may wonder why I haven't gotten over it, why I am still so devastated at this late date, why I don't just get on with life. Well, all I can say is, everybody does the best they can, and I don't feel the need to apologize or defend myself. But I take my hat off to anybody who can deal with it better - I invite them to teach me how.

Today is yet another dreaded "Badiversary": three months since two men in uniforms arrived, shut the door on my beautiful dog curled up obediently in a cold metal cage, and drove off. Imagine knowing that you spent three months working as much as you can to get your dog back, yet you haven't got anywhere. Yes, there are many people, most of them total strangers to me, who have come to my aid, and tried, and are still trying, to help. Yes, there was some press, mostly good, but not enough apparently. Yes, there are petitions and letters and a good start at raising funds. And I am lucky to have the help of a very intelligent lawyer, with a court application or two.

But the closest court date we could get is December 16, which means that unless something else happens, Brindi is sure to suffer nearly five months of "impoundment". A famous TV dog trainer told me at the fourth or fifth week with absolute certainty that Brindi will be a "write-off" if she is in the pound for five months. (Then he proceeded to dress me down mercilessly, placing full blame on me for the situation mainly because I told him she sleeps on my bed. But that's another story.)

Before this happened, it is not as if my life were a bed of roses; I hardly socialized for the past, oh, say eight years, for one reason or another, mainly work. I was not happy about it, but I was more or less used to the isolation. In the past two years, and especially this past summer, I was struggling to get major construction underway, taking leaps upon leaps of faith. I went to a small worship group twice a month, and the eight-week yoga class twice a year, and that's about it. My dog was my main activity partner, and on an average day, she and I rarely even saw or spoke to another human being. We did visit neighbors, and go to the beach, as well. I don't do that anymore. I can't very well go visit Hermann and Teddy, his shih-tzu, alone. I can't feel comfortable hanging out in the pet food store alone. Knowing that some customers have harassed the owner for supporting Brindi, a dog she knows and likes, makes it hard to be there.

A small worship group of a denomination widely known for their great tolerance and practice of peaceful non-violence to whose gatherings I gladly drove 45 minutes for the last two years, and whose support I cherished, practically vanished into thin air since Brindi was taken and seem content to go on without me as they file for a higher status within the organization. I don't know what to say, except that it hurt me more than I can say.

One of Brindi's Angels put in a lot of time calling ministers and priests, looking for somebody to accompany me to the shelter to ask to see Brindi and put the St. Francis medal on her collar. None would agree to do it, including a retired police chaplain who came highly recommended from an ex-cop. He was hard to locate. But he turned me down flat, saying only that he would pray for us. I also spoke for nearly an hour to the local parish priest, but he restricted his help to offering to bless the medal, for fear of alienating parishioners.

During the past three months, I have written dozens of animal groups of one kind or another, from PETA down to the local rescue groups, from the start. Many others did the same on my behalf. I failed to win any support from such groups. The SPCA, rather than speak up on Brindi's behalf, continues to insist that by virtue of its role as poundkeeper its mission to "intervene in animal welfare cases" is automatically voided for any animal unlucky enough to be caught by Animal Services, regardless of circumstance, and that this suspension of its charity function, in order to protect its $300,000-plus contract, is legitimate. No conflict of interest is recognized. And the shelter manager had a friend arrested a few hours after he happened to utter the phrase "Nuremberg Defense" on hearing yet again the explanation of why they cannot help Brindi. Early on, I must note again, the SPCA misinformed many people about my case, which may or may not be responsible for a lot of the silence among dog rescue groups. I certainly understand the SCPA are going through a lot of changes, and bravo for that. But after three months, you'd think they would have done something to try and set the record straight. I know in response to many calls about Brindi they were quick to post a disclaimer on their website, saying they have no say in the outcome of her case. They do, however, execute the city's orders, as a core part of the entire system. But I'm back to the Nuremberg Defense again. Befehl ist Befehl, or in this case, Geschäft ist Geschäft. Enough said.

I have written and spoken to politicians from the local up to the federal level, many times apiece. I wrote and forwarded various other writings, including the petitions, to the provincial minister of justice, the mayor, and to Sgt. McNeil, the by-law enforcement officer in charge of Animal Services, with no response. Same with Animal Services itself: no response to letters, with the exception of a denial without explanation in answer to my fourth in a series of letters I sent requesting permission to see Brindi. I and others have written the Dog Whisperer, Oprah, Ellen, Sarah McLachlan (I think), W5, and plenty of public-minded programs, also to no avail. I'm sure I missed a lot more. I am also sure I'd rather not remember them all.

I should say it is not quite true that no group is supporting me at all: recently, some wonderful law students at Dalhousie from a group dedicated to animal law volunteered to help with the case by doing research, an offer I and my lawyer gratefully accepted. And of course, a group formed on Facebook, all on its own, actually. With some dedicated women who truly love dogs that have embraced me and Brindi without hesitation, and I love them so much for this. I am very fortunate to have support from these many individuals; they have not been silent or scarce. There are over 800 Facebook members, led by a dedicated advocate from Montreal, and a solid core of individuals supporting me. And folks from here to California are donating to the defense fund. Here, we held a little march through downtown, and a little vigil at the SPCA. The petitions continue to grow.

And to his credit, David Hendsbee, my local councilor who met Brindi on two occasions, did his best within his busy life; among other things, he presented the online petitions (turned down by the clerk) to the HRM Council in mid-September. The minutes do not record any ensuing discussion, however. David also spoke to the radio and has written letters to the police and Animal Services asking that I be allowed to see Brindi - with no response. He was turned down himself, when he went to the SPCA to make sure she was even still alive.

But driving back from the city two days ago, the words "nobody's priority" came to mind and stuck. Not that we ever were - or should be - anybody's first priority. It sure would be nice, though!! And it wouldn't be for long, just enough to get her back!

I know that Brindi and I are of concern to many, and for that I am grateful, don't get me wrong. I am single, I am new here, and I am not a longstanding member a company, faculty, parish, club, or other group, so the most I can hope for is to be one of many priorities people have. But despite this, and at the risk of wallowing, I must say it: we are in a great big bottomless void. Among those who can do the most to help, I fear we are simply never going to be a priority. At first, the local politicians were busy with their campaigns before the October 18 election. During the campaign, at least one councilor, Linda Mosher, who was re-elected, told a constituent she deletes any email with Brindi in the title, without reading it. (In the states, senators and representatives are required to answer voter mail. Is this the case here??) Now that it's over, well... word gets back to me that at least a few publicly shake their heads and say it's not right. But Brindi remains locked up all the same.

Because I was not charged with any offense, I did not earn a day in court; I must pay for it instead, and handsomely – it could total a year's income for some people by the time it's over. Attempts to avoid the delay and the cost by dealing directly with Animal Services failed, at least so far. Getting support from city officials is nearly impossible, because as a result of not being charged with a violation, I must take the city to court to save Brindi's life. To a great extent this is necessitated by the law the councilors created, but like the mayor, most claim they cannot get involved because the case is before the courts. Because of the court case, I cannot even get on the agenda to speak to Council - even if I talked about rutabagas, I have a feeling.

This situation makes the city of Halifax worthy of a Joseph Heller novel. Even the US Army, whose current privatized state was predicted by Heller's Catch-22, relented only a few weeks after it banned a woman soldier from taking a puppy home from Iraq. Thank heaven. According to petitions, Ratchet would have been killed if left behind; moreover, army policy prohibits soldiers from keeping pets (stupidly, it seems to me: what better way to prevent or heal post-traumatic stress syndrome? What better way to keep the soldiers civilized, just like the effects of dogs in prisons? Much cheaper than therapy and healthier than medications!).

The day I went to the city, the radio announced Ratchet could finally follow his military mama home to the US. I reflected on this as I drove pass Burnside, the industrial park where Brindi is behind bars at the SPCA. Who would have thought that the Pentagon can be moved, and pretty quickly, more easily than HRM?

The misconceptions and half-truths that abound despite my best efforts, are daunting, and, I fear, may be responsible for the lack of support from "official" animal rescue and other groups. For instance, stories are circulating that Brindi "ripped open" a dog's stomach, and the dog nearly had to be put down. And a letter circulated by an SPCA official declared that I had had many chances, had gone before a judge and lost, so I shouldn't expect to save her. Both totally and utterly false, which anyone could determine, if they bothered to get the facts; both harmful and, actually, libelous, but that's no help now. I just want my dog back.

Or another apparently widespread misconception that, it seems to me, a bit of media coverage could do a lot to dispel (will somebody out there please write an in-depth newspaper article on all these issues???) : the notion that there is some sort of "three strikes and you're out" policy under the law. A CBC radio news reporter I spoke to a few weeks ago believed a three-strike policy exists. Chances are a lot of people in Halifax do as well. But there is no such thing, and thank heaven. By-Law A300 has absolutely no set number of violations beyond which a dog must be destroyed. It has no set anything, as far as I can tell, other than a short list of possible actions that can be taken.Contrary to popular belief, these possible actions, including the destruction of a dog, should the animal control officer see fit to do them, can be taken at any time, without verification of facts (which unfortunately is seldom possible), or the owner's consent or knowledge. No judge, no expert assessment, no time period is mandated by the law (nor are they prohibited, of course). No confirmation of facts is even required, and it may not even be possible. And, dare I say it again, this includes muzzle orders: there is absolutely NOTHING in the law that requires or forces Animal Services to seize and kill a dog because of a presumed muzzle order violation - contrary to the insistence of the supervisor and manager. Read the law: it's just not there. What is there, they did not do: namely, charge the owner with a violation. If they had, things would be very, very different today.

Nor did they follow a procedural policy that Animal Services publishes on its web page, namely, that if a dog appears to be dangerous, the department seizes it first, then investigates to determine what action to take. This is particularly odd, since I have become aware of at least a dozen cases in HRM during the past year that were handled quite differently (sample month in which owners of dogs believed to have bitten humans were duly charged, and with one exception, either fined, or had the charges withdrawn. I don't think there was even a muzzle order involved.

So, fellow campers, it would appear that Animal Services found a loophole in the law, created their own policy, and used it to great effect. This loophole landed, or pushed, Brindi and me into a legal, bureaucratic, social, political, and cultural nomansland.

Now, on this past Wednesday morning, Mayor Kelly was kind enough to keep an appointment scheduled nearly a month ago with a group of five people to discuss A300. The original reason for this appointment was to help free Brindi. I refer to Linda Koekman's little story of a dog named Faith, posted below, circulated to all councilors and the mayor, to which the latter responded with an offer of help. Shortly afterwards, citing the court case, mayoral staff retracted the offer. Linda persisted, settling on the appointment, with the understanding that Brindi could not be discussed. I was not sure I would or should go, at first. But at the time, October 22 seemed so far off, and I wanted to believe that Brindi would be out of the pound by that date. The idea that she was there for even one night was wretched enough. Then there was the first week, then three, then the prospect of five or six with the court case. All of it makes me ill.

So, since to my great sorrow, Brindi was still in the pound by October 22 after all, I felt it necessary to join the discussion, since the appointment originated with Brindi, and since I wanted to hear what the mayor would say about A300 and its enforcement. I was happy to stick to the rules: don't mention the dog. Joan Sinden, that fearless, tireless blogger-ette, prepared a number of materials to hand over, including a chart of previous by-law prosecutions. Several good points were made. Above all, the meeting taught me (again) of the vast gap between how city officials think A300 works, and how it is actually affecting dogs and people (unevenly!). My councilor had no idea that it protects dogs and people equally - punishing dogs equally for attacking either. Regardless of the years of discussion predating A300, cats or no, the fact is, the law was written by a police officer charged with all by-law enforcement. Some, but not all, of the objections raised by the public helped improve it, and some recommendations made by the officer, such as choice of terminology, were not adopted at all. As one of the group pointed out, since when is law written by those who enforce it?

And since when does the law completely omit any sort of appeal process or checks and balances? Add to this list the right to go before a judge: the law appears to provide this, in calling for charges for violations (fines or other), yet it does not require it in all cases, apparently, as in my case, where my dog was taken, but I was never charged with anything, no fine, nothing. Needless to say, I would gladly pay a $222 fine instead of $12,000 in legal costs, plus the boarding costs for five months of my dog's life, and the loss of a chunk of her lifetime, easily equivalent to five years of a human's life.

So I was grateful for the opportunity to be present during the discussion. It was a long-awaited dialogue, just a start, but we were able, I think, to point out a few things the mayor was not aware of. Nobody is saying that dangerous dogs should be allowed to run around and hurt people. Nobody is saying that there should be no penalties.

The question is, what is going to be done to prevent another Brindi? Or another Ducky, for that matter? That question goes to everybody in this town, including the SPCA, along with a much more pressing question for everybody:
just who is willing to make rescuing Brindi NOW a priority??!!

It's not that it can't be done. It could happen any day. Just because there is a court case does not mean public officials are prohibited from acting. In fact several kinds of officials could act, should they choose to, and it seems to me they could act in any number of ways; from requesting a review of the case by Animal Services, to suspending the law in some way. At the very least, somebody could at least see to it that I am allowed to visit Brindi in the SPCA Metro Shelter. To be charged $25 a day for boarding - more expensive than my kennel - while being denied visiting rights, must be cruel and unusual punishment by any measure, especially since I haven't been charged with anything, and the court date is so far away. It's like paying for a loved one to be held at Guantanamo Bay, said a friend. I tend to agree. Don't blast me for saying it, until you're in my situation, please; I don't mean to equate the pound with that hell-house, I am just trying to make a point: NO comparison should be possible, if things were done right.

I am hopeful that with new board members, things on that score might change. They have a lot of work cut out for them. I was glad to learn at the press conference that I may be able to meet with one of them soon. But my optimism is cautious, as I was also told up front to expect things to change "slowly", even though Brindi is a recognized "casualty" of the recent state of affairs. Not exactly reassuring words, after three months not seeing her, the discovery of the use of the rabies pole and no outside pen, the arrest of a friend for criminal harassment, and the false information (not to mention having the cops called on me on October 4 when I parked across the street from the Metro Shelter, sat in the car and cried, after the march through town). Whoever called, called more than once, and oddly, identified me as someone who "might not be okay". The shelter manager clearly saw me and could tell it was my red car when she put out the trash. Fortunately, the woman officer answering the call was a very good listener and became very sympathetic when she heard the story; in a way, I was glad she showed up). The question is: why isn't Brindi a priority for them?

Of course there is more to discuss about the meeting and about the press conference, worth mentioning, but I can only do that after I recover a bit more from the experience - not because they were so awful as such; on the contrary, in many ways, they were both very constructive on many fronts. I was glad I went; I also got to meet a few true animal advocates. It's just I arrived home to my dog-less, heatless, cellar-less, chaotically lifted house, a threat of losing my heritage grant now hanging over my head, and was hit with a terrible realization. I had spent the day among well-meaning people, but all were talking theory, while my living, breathing, loving dog is still locked up. Am I any closer to seeing her, let along bringing her home, than I was three months ago? No, not really. So, my Thursday was a wreck, and the day after that, and probably a lot of days to come.

So here's the thing: unless somebody is willing to make it a priority to save Brindi from death (and the eternal threat of death via a muzzle), she is doomed to wait till Christmas, and possibly longer, and/or may end up dying. This is the truth, not me being pessimistic. And it's a truth I have to live with every day, like it or not, and every day, it kills me. I have no choice but to continue fighting for her, not for the sake of pride or stubbornness, but because I love this dog, and I need this dog, and she needs me. And in principle, I refuse to let any government ignore this important bond of mine, as a human being, and take away my non-aggressive dog from her only loving home ever and kill her in the name of public safety that it admits she doesn't threaten (generally, "public" equals "human") .

Let me add, what a fallacy it is to refer to these orders to destroy as "humane euthanization". Humane for whom? Let's call a spade a spade: it's a kill. Euthanasia really means a painless mercy killing. Animal euthanization is humane when it involves an animal near death and/or in tremendous pain. There is nothing humane about killing a healthy dog with a good home and an owner committed to training her and fencingher in. Even if a dog trained to fight or one that is very vicious is seized, putting it down is not "humane" or "euthanization", but simply, destruction of life presumed necessary for the sake of humankind. Like eliminating pests. Not in my name, thank you. Sometimes courts agree (three words: Michael Vick's pit bulls. Either adopted or sent to Best Friends; none killed).

Last week I talked to Jean Hanlon, the owner of a sweet old kitty named Ducky that Animal Services mistakenly and swiftly "humanely euthanized" in August solely on the strength of her neighbor's signed statement that the 17-year old angora was a stray. (His single comment afterwards: Oh, was that your cat?) Jean is now selling her house. I hope she won't mind me sharing this, but she asked me whether I, like her, find the experience is changing me, and not necessarily for the better. Sadly, I had to say yes, it is changing me, inwardly hoping it isn't, but certain it is, all the same. Will I still trust people? Is there a choice?