Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sorry, but I have a big bone to pick with the SPCA

When I cry, even a little, my cats jump off the bed and vanish. I am crying now, soon after waking up today, because consciousness brought me back to what happened yesterday. 

It may seem like a tempest in a teapot to a lot of people. But something as simple as a bone can mean life or death to a dog. And you can't ever take it for granted that somebody will do what they say. This is what I wrote to friends after my weekly visit to Brindi yesterday:

 At the end of my visits with Brindi, I give her a fresh juicy bone, her favorite treat, to distract her when I leave and give her something to do in her cell. I was bringing Brindi bones on a regular basis for the past 10 months. As I drove away from the shelter without her, crying my head off each time, I could at least console myself that she had a little pleasure, remembering how she could demolish a bone in record time. After the "ban" (imposed only because I asked to see her), a few helpers took over for a while. In December, when I heard about Jeff de la Rosa's dog Stu, whose teeth were in bad shape after three years in a pound, I felt assured this would not happen to my dog, thanks to the bones I brought. I was wrong.
Today at the SPCA I had a big shock. I saw the shelter manager take the fresh beef bone right out of Brindi’s mouth, right in front of me. Of course, Brindi, being the dangerous dog that she is, sat obediently and allowed her to do it, making only one symbolic try to get it back when it was dangled in front of her face - no growling, no threatening, no locking on to it!!!

This happened right after this woman said “No high value items, hun!” What high value?? $1.80 for two bones?? What are you talking about? Why can't she have it? No answer. I asked five times, she ignored me. Then she said, “If you want me to give you an appropriate treat, I’ll give you one.” Appropriate? Excuse me?? I said, this is MY dog, I will and can decide what is appropriate, I own this dog! Then in horror I asked if they had been taking away all the bones I brought in all this time – and not giving her the extras in packs I brought - no answer. Obviously, that is exactly what has been happening. My own eyes told me so, because her teeth are such an atrocity. But they say they love her and I just could not believe they would walk her away with a bone in her mouth, a happy camper, and then take it away when she was out of sight! I could not believe the desk girls would politely accept a whole package of bones, promising to give them to Brindi every day!! Is this what they think is right? Is this how they treat dogs they love?

On my first visit in April I noticed Brindi’s teeth were in bad shape - big encrustations, calcium deposits, black and brown stains, plaque everywhere, even in her bottom front teeth, the tops - black. The first visit, her gums bled after she fetched a plastic frisbee two times. So I doubled the effort to bring more bones, and in May, summoned the courage to ask if her teeth could be cleaned. Apparently they are worried because she has to go her under full anesthesia – a risk to them. The real danger is the release of the bacteria scrapings which can cause organ damage, or get to her heart, cause a staph infection, and kill her. And she could lose teeth to cavities or gum disease. None of this would be a concern now if they had just given her the bones.

Every time I dropped them off (even risking arrest, during the ban) and asked politely if they would give them to Brindi, the staff and volunteers would say yes, okay, fine, no problem. Not once did they say she can’t have them. Whether they ever gave her any bones, or just tossed them, I’ll never know. But I have brought a lot of them, and her teeth should be in much better shape. Forget the wasted money; no money can restore her teeth to their former condition. They are not obviously not giving her any “appropriate” substitute, because they would not be this bad.

The fact is, she does not like artificial bones. And I learned the hard way that rawhide was no good; she threw up and had diarrhea for five days. A raw beef bone does the job very well, and it does not splinter like cooked ones. I confirmed with good sources that raw bones are okay - and 13 months of giving them to her proved it.

I should have believed my own eyes, back in April, but I could just not believe anybody would lie to me about such a tiny thing, and also deny my dog a bit of pleasure. I so regret that I did not even think to take a photo of her teeth today; I could kick myself. But I was already admonished for taking a few pictures of her, because it is against the “conditions”. I figured since the SPCA staff took video and pictures of Brindi on her “birthday” last month, I have a right to do it. But today I was told I might be refused more visits in the future if I did.

These are the 12 conditions for visits that I understand Sean Kelly, then the head of the “shelter management team”, wrote in April. They apply to me and me only. I was thrilled to be allowed to see Brindi, don't get me wrong!! But I was taken aback, especially by a 13th condition against writing or talking about the visits afterwards. HRM, realizing this goes against the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, got that one dropped. The other conditions prohibit such things as bringing a friend, going inside the shelter, or being late, and one about “no high-value items” that mystified everybody. Who would think it meant bones??

I signed to the conditions under protest. Without a witness (and a lawyer cannot be a witness), they can easily claim I was rude and stop the visits. But I can’t help wondering that an even bigger reason for the conditions is simply to prevent me from documenting my dog’s condition. And yes, I know that by posting this now, I am risking losing the privilege to see her. A bit of blackmail on top of all the rest. I am told that is what can happen in a big institution. I suppose. And who am I to ask for honesty and decency from a public charity?

I am sorry if the shelter staff feel unfairly criticized by me. It is not that I don’t appreciate all their work and care. I really do. They work very hard, handle tons of animals, and the shelter has improved 100% since last July. And I think they know that I am not a physical threat to them, that I would never issue a death threat to anybody. They know that my dog is my world, just like any other dog person. The bottom line is, the SPCA is responsible for her health, not HRM. They were good to alert me to the cysts, and to bathe her again when I asked. Maybe they don’t all agree with these policies. If so, I would hope they’d speak up. And nobody should be asked to lie as part of their job, paid or unpaid.

The shelter manager, who was at least honest about it, tried to fend off my questions about the bones as diplomatically as possible. She said I could talk to Sean Kelly. This must mean the bones are prohibited by the same man who taught Brindi to jump on people. I discovered this to my horror on my first visit ever, in minus zero weather last January. Then, I didn’t have time to bring treats (I used to bake my own, using chicken hearts). Brindi was demanding a treat every other second, wildly jumping on me if I didn't produce one. (Luckily she got the message not to do this, during my first two visits.) When I asked for treats, I received fake bacon strips, among the fattiest, most carcinogenic commercial treats ever, just dripping with red dye. “Appropriate”? For whom?

HRM legal services were a bit confused about the bones themselves, and are going to ask about it. But they cautioned me that they cannot control the SPCA’s actions. I have to wonder that in return for $34,500 a month, $414,000 a year, HRM feels it cannot give any instruction to a private contractor. It seems even odder that this contractor vows it will lose the HRM contract unless it kills any dog deemed dangerous by animal control. It's the only game in town, as far as a pound goes. The SPCA rationale conveyed to me in person before a witness last October by a smiling Sean Kelly went like this: sure, a few dogs may die needlessly, like Brindi, and that’s sad and everything, but gosh, they need the money so they can help a lot more dogs in the province. Yes, they need the money. But, dare I ask, doesn't this make it blood money?

Back then, it was “Sorry, Francesca, we’d really like to help but our hands are tied!”  But already in January, it was “Sorry HRM, we can’t kill this dog - but let’s just not give her back to her owner!”  (This despite the fact that my court case got the law changed so that other owners will have a fighting chance to save their dogs.) Now they are insulted because PETA has taken an interest and asked for reason to prevail. But nobody is forcing them; heck, my dog is not even being held legally, since there is no “disposition” on her, no legal purpose to hold her. (To get a judge to confirm this is the trick, as they are unsure about their jurisdiction, for one thing... I fear I may never get a fair hearing for Brindi. The sole reason HRM charged me in January is to use the charges to get another order to destroy; they are not offering to make up for the lack of an appeal process, which would seem called for under the circumstances.)

If only the false obstacles could be cleared aside, and the SPCA saw the truly ideal position they are in. Instead of circulating press releases about how well Brindi is cared for - not really possible in their short-term care facility - why not take a look at the realities? The SPCA are entitled by provincial law to exercise their right to protect animal welfare for all animals - a monopoly. They need no one's permission to screen dogs declared dangerous, using experts and common sense. If they did this, they would perform an invaluable public service. Dogs’ lives could be spared, humans would not be ruined financially and psychologically, and bad PR could be exchanged for praise, because they would be the heroes. And I would be the first to lead the celebratory parade.

The trouble is, if they can't understand beef bones, I don’t see much hope.