Friday, January 29, 2010

"Just a Dog"

From time to time, people tell me, "lighten up, it's just a dog," or, "that's a lot of money for just a dog."

They don't understand the distance traveled, the time spent, or the costs involved for "just a dog."

Some of my proudest moments have come about with "just a dog."

Many hours have passed and my only company was "just a dog," but I did not once feel slighted.

Some of my saddest moments have been brought about by "just a dog," and in those days of darkness, the gentle touch of "just a dog" gave me comfort and reason to overcome the day.

If you, too, think it's "just a dog," then you will probably understand phrases like "just a friend," "just a sunrise," or "just a promise."

"Just a dog" brings into my life the very essence of friendship, trust, and pure unbridled joy.

"Just a dog" brings out the compassion and patience that make me a better person.

Because of "just a dog", I will rise early, take long walks and look longingly to the future.

So for me and folks like me, it's not "just a dog" but an embodiment of all the hopes and dreams of the future, the fond memories of the past, and the pure joy of the moment.

"Just a dog" brings out what's good in me and diverts my thoughts away from myself and the worries of the day.

I hope that someday they can understand that it's not "just a dog", but the thing that gives me humanity and keeps me from being "just a man or woman."

So the next time you hear the phrase "just a dog", just smile... because they "just don't understand."

by Richard A. Biby

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SPCA: "Whatever you do, don't mention the war!"

I received this letter a few days ago. (I understand that Janice Bingley, whose dogs were seized by SPCA special constables in October, received an identical one.)

Here's my response:

First, I am not aware of ever having made any false statements about the SPCA. If I did so, it was certainly not intentional. Should the SPCA be willing to identify any statements of mine that they believe to be untrue, I'd be more than happy to remove them, if I am able to.

Otherwise, I respectfully reserve the right to express my opinion. As for "malicious", I suppose that's a matter of opinion. It also works both ways.

Finally, I would be extremely happy to stop commenting on the SPCA completely, and forever and ever, if they would be so kind as to give me my dog back.

Perhaps now that they have apparently lost the pound contract, they might wish to sit down and rethink their role in the matter, such as keeping my dog for over a year and half at a short-term care facility. Not to mention their initial decision to decline my request for  help me get her out at the very start, rather than deciding that one dead dog is an acceptable casualty in exchange for $414,000 a year. Having been told this by a board member in person, in plain language, in October 2008, I believe that this is an accurate representation of the position of the board of directors; if not, I apologize.

Contracts, conflations, confusion

It was surprising to learn that the SPCA lost a bid to renew its pound contract with HRM.

This is a very lucrative contract, with an enormous profit margin. That it goes unremarked in public discussion is perplexing, as half a million dollars a year seems awfully high for the cost of operating a few cages - the actual number is not made known - that occupy a part of the small shelter in Dartmouth.

The SPCA's pound contract had built-in annual fee increases, so from 2004 to 2009, the total grew in leaps and bounds, from about $200,000 to $414,000, sans any corresponding increase in services. If all of HRM's contractors enjoyed such generous increases, the city would be broke, surely! And people are willing to do all sorts of things to hang on to that money. It amounts to a bit less than half of the NS SPCA's annual income. The pressure to keep the contract is widely acknowledged as a reason why the SPCA cooperated with HRM all this time, and did not help me get Brindi out of the pound. I am not speculating here; in October 2008 I was told in plain language by the now president of the organization. They could not speak out or do anything about Brindi, because it would interfere with the contract, and they need the money to save other dogs. Aside from the dubiousness of the claim that a charity mandated to prevent cruelty would lose a contract for acting to save Brindi, it is ironic and, to me, a double loss, that they are now losing it anyway, as of the end of March.

I don't know exactly what has transpired between HRM and the SPCA to cause this to happen. As far as I could tell, the SPCA did everything it was asked to do. And a further irony, a very sad one, is that HRM pointed to a lack of adequate long-term care as a shortcoming of the SPCA. It was always aware that the Metro Shelter is not designed to keep animals for longer than 30 days. I tried several times to get Brindi transferred to a suitable kennel. Each time, HRM refused, claiming that the conditions were fine; they would not transfer her without a court order. Then it claimed the provincial court did not have the authority to issue an order to transfer her. Apparently, an order to move a dog to a proper kennel requires a Supreme Court application, which could take over six months to be heard.

So for HRM to use the long-term care issue as a reason not to renew the SPCA's contract seems just a tad disingenuous to me.

With the contract's huge pricetag, close to half a million now, it's no wonder it was very attractive to other bidders. Hope Swinimer, director of the Hope for Wildlife Society, formed a special company for this very purpose. Her bid was accepted by the HRM staff and will be voted on today in the HRM council meeting. The contract will go a long way towards supporting the Wildlife Society's operations, just as it currently helps support the SPCA's provincial operations. It is interesting to consider that the keeping of impounded dogs will fund rescues of bobcats, racoons, eagle, and deer, to name a few of the many species that Hope and her volunteers care for on a regular basis. (I feel it's a shame that there is no source of direct funding for the wildlife rehab center.)

In essence, this change in contractor does little to help Brindi, or, for that mater, Mercedes, a pitbull that has been impounded for over six months, after it attacked two cyclists. The contract has no exclusion clause preventing HRM from sending dogs in such predicaments to more suitable kennels, but it seems that the city is not prepared to sort out what is needed in order to do that. Nor is there any talk of amending the law to set limits on the length of impoundments. That of course would require a few changes in the by-laws to create procedures that would make such limits possible. I understand that the council is putting off changing A300 until my case is over, which is interesting, as they created the law that helped bring the case about, but refrain from acting to help resolve it.


Fortunately, without the quashed section 8(2)d of A300, there should not be another case like Brindi's, where the animal control officer ordered euthanasia (without investigation), and there was and is no due process for the owner, which essentially led to such a long impoundment (that, plus the city's refusal to give her back after the supreme court ruled in my favor). Nevertheless, there is a serious backlog of cases in the courts so that  Mercedes' case has already been delayed six months.

Perhaps then, with time and clarity in mind, it would be a good idea for HRM to proceed on two levels in such cases: prosecute the owners in the courts, and review the issue of "dangerous dog" in a separate process. After all, under the current version of A300, euthanasia is not a penalty; it only stipulates fines. A provincial law currently allows a judge to order a dog to be put down, namely section 177 of the Municipal Government Act.  (The law still provides for a dog to be put down on the spot by AC officers in situations of extreme danger.) Section 177 is called "Additional Penalty", a term which raises the same issue of separation.

It seems to me that penalties imposed on humans should not involve killing an animal, for many reasons, legal and otherwise. If and when an animal is properly assessed and found to be "incorrigible", i.e., has severely injured or killed a human or another animal, many communities call for euthanasia; some allow the owner to remove the animal from the jurisdiction (Boston, for example).

I would prefer the latter, of course, but the point is, there is currently no such separate process in place here. Instead, the dog and owner are thrown into the legal system with its "glacial" pace of movement, while the system is employed by HRM to seek a euthanasia order in a very roundabout way, with no requirement for anyone, judge or prosecutor, to obtain and consider an expert assessment of the animal's behavior proving that it is indeed too dangerous to be allowed to live. At best, it is a hit and miss affair, when it comes to evidence and judgments.

By the way, Brindi's behavior assessment (conducted at the pound at the five-month point, by court order at my request and expense) was not reviewed by the supreme court, and it has been ignored - or worse, given a negative spin - by HRM for over a year.

There are very few cases that end in euthanasia. Nevetheless, HRM Animal Services does succeed in putting down a fair number of dogs deemed "dangerous". How? They simply get the owners to turn them over, evading any court proceeding. The owners are likely told that fighting a euthanasia order will be costly to them, and cause their dog to be impounded for a long time, and surely they wouldn't want to inflict that on their pet. So, in 2007, for example, something like ten dogs were signed over by their owners to be destroyed as "dangerous" dogs (according to a chart I received from HRM last year; if I can find it, I will post it!) That's kind of a lot of dangerous dogs, for a city this size.

I note here (again) that if one applied the law evenly, far more dogs would be put down; in fact, under section 2 of A300, any time an owner is declared guilty of owning a dog that threatened or attacked an animal or a person, and there are many (see here), their dog is automatically defined as "dangerous"; ditto for any dog with a muzzle order.

Here's another odd thing: declaring a dog dangerous does not require the city to euthanize it. In fact, there is a special licensing category with a fee of $100 for dangerous dogs. But Brindi was never put into this category; I was asked to renew her license last spring for $15.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Anniversary of Horrors upon Horrors

"He is your friend, your partner, your defender,
your dog. You are his life, his love, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last
beat of his heart. You owe it to him to be worthy
of such devotion."

-      Unknown

Today is the day, one year ago, and two days after the Supreme Court ruled against it, that the city of Halifax Animal Services decided not to return Brindi to me. Then, less than two hours after that dire, gut-wrenching news, they sent two officers to my house accompanied by a squad car. They were there to charge me for an incident that occurred six months earlier, the one that led to my dog's seizure. What they couldn't achieve with an unconstitutional by-law, they decided to do another way, using the charges to leapfrog to another death sentence.

It was a Monday I'll never forget, and it came after an equally unforgettable grueling weekend of disbelief, horror, and disappointment. On the previous Friday, the Supreme Court justice finally released a ruling voiding the euthanasia order. But while people all over celebrated, I enjoyed just a few hours of elation. By the next day, when I was finally allowed to see Brindi after six months of begging, it had already became clear that something sinister was afoot. Animal Services manager Andrea Macdonald scoffed when I objected to the restrictions on visits and all but told me they were not releasing Brindi. She and her staff were sitting in the office then and there, on a weekend, scouring the by-law for some way to hang on to Brindi. They never actually found anything legal but that didn't seem to matter. Horrified, I begged my lawyer to do something, to no avail. I found out a month or so later that in fact he could have done a few things, both before and after that day. Brindi would have been right back where she belonged, but there was no way for me to know at the time: I also was foolish enough to trust him. Needless to say - and I won't, not right now, anyway - that man turned out to be far less of a lawyer than he ought to be. Far less than anyone would want to know, certainly not me.

Now, rather than getting a fair hearing on whether my dog is dangerous or can go home, I face a court trial for those charges. It's been a terrible year of let-downs and frustrations with the legal system and a number of lawyers. I don't know if I can honestly say that I am confident the proceedings will be fair - why would I expect fairness, after all the unfair treatment my dog and I have received?

Just last week I was in court to witness yet another case. The dog's behavior makes Brindi's pale in comparison. But neither the dog nor the owner was penalized by seizure and euthanasia; heck, not even fines. This dog, part lab, caused severe injuries to dogs requiring major surgery, and was reported again after attacking a person causing a cut to the lip. After the last report, Animal Services issued a muzzle order, but no charges were ever laid (hence, no fines). No mention of euthanization. The owner was able to even get the city to agree that the dog does not have to be muzzled on his property, by virtue of the length of his driveway and the fact that the by-law makes no mention of locations. It was astounding how forthcoming and cooperative both Animal Services and HRM lawyer Kishan Persaud were. Persaud unsuccessfully defended the city at the supreme court (to be fair, nobody could have succeeded in his place). Since then he has told me all sorts of things, many of them not true, including how dangerous my dog is, and how I deny responsibility for anything - both easily disproven. He sometimes adds very hurtful remarks. Last week, he bragged with a laugh, "We have had Brindi longer than you have!"

A month or so ago I witnessed a ruling on a case where an unlicensed dog (unlicensed for ten years) killed a kitten in a neighbor's yard. The dog's owner was the wife of the man who appeared in court; the wife was not there. Nor did he have a lawyer present (rarely ever is that the case).

How astonished was I to hear the same HRM lawyer Kishan Persaud tell the judge that HRM was seeking only a $300 fine plus court costs, totalling $500? The man pled guilty, as Persaud told him to do, and the judge gave him several months to pay the money and return with a license. NO mention of euthanasia, muzzle, or even a fence. This dog attacked and killed an animal, a proven killer. I waited to talk to Persaud about afterwards, but he scooted off very quickly. Humane Halifax sent out news releases; no press covered the story.

Now, in court Persaud used the idea that it was the first offense  - or at least, no prior incidents were reported - as an argument to mitigate the charges. However, these charges are known as "strict liability offenses". That means the offense either happened or it did not; if it happened, the law is supposed to be enforced, i.e., a fine for every violation. There are no mitigations; prior record has no bearing. It is not a discussion about a human offender. It is supposed to be about public safety. By-law A300 is very clear about the definition of dangerous dogs, and any dog that kills another animal or causes serious injuries definitely falls into the definition. The by-law makes no distinctions for prior offenses - no animal control by-law anywhere does!

Lest anybody misunderstand, I am against euthanizing dogs unless they are near death's door and cannot be treated successfully. So I am certainly not arguing that either of these dogs should be put down. However, if there was ever a case for ordering a muzzle or a fence, this was it. And I am saying that things are not right when my dog is incarcerated for over a year and a half and these others are not even considered for seizure!!! And these are just two cases. Others can be compared here, thanks to the expert help of Holly Ellis.

HRM's ruthless handling of my case does not even begin to compare to these cases. To the public, they seem to stress things like the number of incidents, but by-law offenses are meant to be charged and fined. When it comes to the question of euthanization, a few brushes with dogs here or there are not the issue; the issue is (or ought to be) whether a dog is too "dangerous" to own and "incorrigible" - unable to be trained. Is Brindi incorrigible? Hardly!!

Such cases also expose the myth that the issue about liability is a concern of HRM, since they involved serious damage and/or killing, unlike Brindi's "offenses". Even though Mayor Kelly may have said so, in all this time, HRM and Animal Services have never raised the issue of a lawsuit ensuing from a dog's behavior. In fact, Persaud shrugged off the idea of a lawsuit more than once in speaking to me. Other HRM lawyers show equal indifference, so it cannot be a genuine worry.

Persaud's answer to why he was so flexible and lenient with the other cases? Because the owners pleaded guilty. !!! I actually had to remind him that HRM is trying to kill my dog, not to simply enforce the law. He knows very well if I were to plead guilty, I would be signing her death sentence. They didn't seek to kill these other animals. In fact they only seem to have one euthanization in the last two years; of course that does not count the many times they intimidated owners into signing over their dogs, doubtless by telling them that it would be expensive to fight them in court, and the dog would suffer in the pound. That's why I sought the fastest method possible in court - the quashing of the law and the death sentence AND the release of my dog.

Too bad I could not count on HRM's goodwill response (to concede the problem is in the system, for one thing; the lack of an appeal process for starters), nor could I count on the local lights of the legal profession to do their job properly. It's up to me now, and I can tell you, I am not excited about the prospect of representing myself. I did everything I could to avoid it.

Meanwhile, try as I might, I cannot even get a judge to order that Brindi be transferred to a real kennel able to give her adequate exercise and care. I am told over and over that the provincial court has no "authority" to issue such an order. Even if it did, said the last judge, she "wouldn't want to", because she wanted to get on with the trial. I don't mean to challenge a judge, but that idea seems to sidestep a whole host of issues, not to mention legalities from the animal cruelty act to the property laws. It also begs the question: if the provincial judge has no authority over a municipality, who does?
Jurisdiction of provincial court judges
106. A provincial court judge has, with respect to matters arising under this Act, jurisdiction over the whole county, union of counties or judicial district in which the city, town or other place for which he is appointed or in which he has jurisdiction under provincial laws is situated.
Yet suppose, as an owner, I was not giving Brindi proper care. The Nova Scotia SPCA could come and take her away forever on the strength of a simple phone call, even an anonymous one. And Janice Bingley's ongoing horror story with the seizure of 22 dogs (including 11 newborn Great Dane puppies) is a disturbing reminder that the SPCA has the authority to do all sorts of things, even to adopt (sell) her dogs without ever laying charges. So a charity has more authority (power) than a provincial court judge. Interesting, isn't it?

This lack of due process and overstepping of authority is of course just as unconstitutional as the A300 by-law clause that allowed animal control officers to order euthanasia without a court ruling - the clause that one year ago, I asked the court to quash. It was declared void with retroactive effect -i.e., it was effectively never a law.

There is a lot more I would love to say about the legal process and profession. It would certainly explain a lot of questions that I know people have. But I don't dare say more.

All I can say is, I went to court over a year ago to get my dog back. There was never any doubt of that. I have the papers and the cancelled checks to show it.

But today, thanks to my "victory" in court, costing me countless hours of my time, and over $30,000 I could ill afford to spend, every dog in HRM is now protected, except for my dog. Today, we are still living with the horrors resulting from wrongful seizure and lack of due process. Today, my dog is not safe, and my life is upside down. My dog is still facing a death sentence. My poor, loving, smart, faithful funny girl Brindi, who waited two years to be adopted and only had one year together with me, a real family in a real home, is still languishing in the pound run by the SPCA, and her robust health and fit condition are gone, her teeth are bad, gums are diseased, and she has pancreatitis. I hope the municipal employees and others who love to say that they are just doing their jobs can sleep at night. I sure can't. 

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Special people

This is a list that I have been wanting to post for weeks. Didn't get it up in time for the holidays, as intended; the cold and the allure of sleep got in the way. The order is more or less random, but any list has to begin with Bob Riley, without fail. It's definitely not yet complete. I'll never get there, perhaps, but I will keep trying. Stand by!

Bob Riley
Jean Myers 
Heather Anderson
Lana Horan
Holly Ellis
Lisa Lindsay and Reggie
Jenn Richardson and her mother
Mary Cooke
Peggy Macintyre
Valerie Slaunwhite
Rose Pelrine 
John Buchanan
Margo Ross and family
Jean Hanlon
Carrie Elisius
Carol Waterman 
Monika Court
Kris Murdock
Olive Pastor
Dorothy and Preston Andrews
Karen Duffy
Carl Robicheau
Diane Nielsen
Katherine Chaisson
Jeff de la Rosa
Athena Bane 
Roxanne Oliver 
Vidya Wang
Mike Asuncion
Laurie Brewer
Linda Brenner
Linda Dennis
Mary West
Chris Cooper
Ted Efthymiadis
Mary Rogier 
Sandra Janoski
Michelle Steen
Rosemary Gould
Sharon Holmes
Darrel and Juanita Frail
Debbie Chalus
Susan Ito
Kelsey Rae de Coste
Ed Mulrenin
Carol Anne Hutchinson 
Lorne Pike 
Maureen Hurly
Brucefur Fader
Margaret Guercio
Marise Richardson
Diane Ahe
Linda and Richard Koekman
Maxine Waddy
Jay Veinot
Dr. Anthony Jones
David Hendsbee
Scott Brown
Paul and Cathy Jakobsen 
Caz Weatherill
Lori Drummond
Wendy Shaw
Amy Scott
Lindsay Goodfellow
Don and Bernadette Murphy
Kelly Gray

Bruce Stewart
Andrea Somers
Hope Swinimer
Jon Stone
Phil Gallant
Dr. Hamm Rotermund

Marina Findlay
Dr. Robert Merritt
Perry and Mel Clark and family
Herman Gagnon and Teddy
Margie and Charles Wade
Linda and Jerry Melvin
Kirk Slade
Carol Henderson
Gordon Durant
Shari Harrison
Teresa Turner
Pami Pantigoso
Sissy MacNeil
Edda Bataan
Mary St. Amand
Bill Bruce
Tracy Root
Margit R√łnsholt
Doug Bethune

These are folks who have been especially kind, generous, and giving of so many things; time, money, phone, letter and email campaigns; encouraging words, companionship. I will never forget them, even if I haven't been in constant contact with them, for which I apologize (needless to say, no cards were sent out from this address). Most I did not know two years ago, with some important exceptions; some I have yet to meet in person but I feel I've known them for ages. Many have been fighting for Brindi in ways too numerous to mention, putting in countless hours.

All of these people-and more-kept me going through countless ups and downs and continue to support my goal of getting my poor neglected girl back home. It's very humbling, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart for walking with us on this difficult journey, and send them all my love.