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How the system failed to protect
that was never given a chance --
until it was too late
A dog known as Phoenix, inset; and in the backgroung her mother
Photos courtesy of Friends For Life Canine Rescue.
Story & photos by MEGHAN VOGEL FULMER
JACKIE SIMPSON DIDN'T THINK
MUCH ABOUT the call left on her answering machine that Friday
afternoon in late March. Stopping by her office after a day spent
in the field, Eureka's sole animal control officer was just checking
the last of her messages before leaving work for the weekend.
It wasn't until almost 6 p.m. that Simpson had a chance to return
Cindy Bowser's call about a possible case of animal abuse in
Myrtletown. She informed Bowser that the matter would have to
wait until Monday.
days later, a dog that had been living at that location would
be named "Phoenix" by veterinarians engaged in a desperate
and ultimately futile battle to save its life; not long afterward,
the dog's owner, Susan Tatro, would be arrested and charged with
a felony and two misdemeanors in what has become one of Humboldt
County's most widely publicized animal cruelty cases in recent
memory. And now, for the first time, animal rights advocates
are publicly questioning the role played by Eureka animal control
-- not just about Simpson's decision to put off Bowser for the
weekend, but also about the fact that she did not take aggressive
action when she first received a complaint last December about
"screaming" and "crying" dogs living in an
outdoor pen at 1307 West Ave.
Simpson is not the only one
who failed to take effective action. A Eureka police officer
went out to the site the day before Phoenix was rescued, viewed
the moribund animal, and was told by his supervisor to do nothing.
Two days later, with Phoenix dead, animal rights advocates frantically
tried to persuade the authorities to go onto the property and
seize two other animals that had been trapped in the same pen.
A search warrant was not obtained until the following day, by
which time the two animals -- who were in better condition than
Phoenix -- were gone.
When told that animal control
knew about possible problems at the property last year, Kathleen
Kistler, executive director of the Sequoia Humane Society, said
that an on-site inspection of the pen should have been done then;
either that, Kistler said, or animal control should have posted
a notice on the property requiring the dogs' owner to come down
to City Hall with the dogs so that their condition could have
McFarland, co-founder of Friends for Life Canine Rescue, a local
organization focused on finding homes for stray and abandoned
dogs, accused animal control of abrogating its responsibilities:
"There are laws in place that are meant to protect animals
from these situations, and the fact that law enforcement didn't
implement those laws resulted in this dog's death."
Simpson said anyone criticizing
animal control in this case simply doesn't understand the law;
absent an emergency situation in which an animal is in jeopardy
of dying in a matter of minutes -- perhaps from heat stroke if
locked in a car left out in the sun -- an animal control officer
cannot trespass on private property without a search warrant.
To obtain a warrant, an officer needs tangible evidence of abuse;
that was lacking in this case, Simpson said, for the simple reason
that the pen was too deep on the property to be seen clearly
from the street.
SENSE OF URGENCY
"At the time I had no concrete
evidence, there was no sense of urgency," said Simpson of
her telephone conversation with Bowser on Friday, March 22. "All
I knew was that she was telling me there was a dog that appeared
to be unkempt and that it smelled bad. I couldn't enter onto
the property without a search warrant."
Bowser said she expressed strong
concern to Simpson about poor living conditions. Walking by the
property earlier in the day, "it smelled like a broken sewer
pipe and I really believed the smell was coming from the pen,"
Bowser recalled. "I was concerned about the dogs in the
pen, about their well-being."
During the conversation, Simpson
realized she had received a previous complaint about the same
Myrtletown property before. It was in December, when another
neighbor -- not Bowser -- had called complaining of dogs "screaming
or crying in the night." Simpson went down to the West Avenue
property to investigate. She knocked on the door, got no answer,
then walked and drove the perimeter. She saw dogs in a pen, but
the pen appeared to be fairly good sized and the dogs were quiet.
Seeing no reason to investigate the matter further, she left.
that she had inspected the property over three months before
did not raise a red flag in Simpson's mind that Friday evening
in March. Instead, it merely strengthened her decision not to
take any action. She said Bowser told her that the pen was small,
"but I remembered that it had seemed O.K." As for the
complaint about a foul smell emanating from the property, Simpson
said "I had not noticed the smell before."
"I knew it was going to
be one of those debatable situations," Simpson added. She
said another factor in her thinking was that going out that late
in the day on Friday would have involved requesting overtime
Phoenix, a female kelpie about
a year old, was eventually taken from the mud and feces-encrusted
pen she was locked in on Sunday, March 24, by Eureka Police Officer
Cindy Manos. Although McKinleyville veterinarian Cynthia Macune
did all she could to save the animal, its emaciated state had
brought on a severe case of hypothermia; the dog's starvation
was so advanced that it had no body fat or muscle to insulate
itself from the cold.
"A day would have possibly
made a difference," said Macune of the dog's survival. "It's
quite possible. It would have been nice to be able to work on
her Friday evening."
"No, not really,"
said Simpson when asked if she regretted not going out that Friday
night. "Because there was nothing I could've done anyway
except stand on the edge of the property and look in."
Of course, had Simpson obtained
a warrant after her December visit and inspected the pen then,
she might very well have realized that the animals were being
severely neglected; after all by March they were knee-deep in
excrement, an indication that they were trapped for a very long
time. But Simpson said it's possible that at that time Phoenix
may not have been in bad enough shape to justify seizing her.
SHRIVELED-UP LITTLE THING'
[photo at left] had been concerned since late last summer about
the crying puppy noises she had been hearing so frequently on
her walks past a neighbor's fenced-in backyard. On a few occasions
she and some fellow neighbors had even tried to contact the owner
of the dogs.
"It was hard to tell who
really lived in the house. People were always coming and going,"
said Bowser. "Sometimes there would be no lights on for
days, but you could still hear puppies crying in the backyard.
We didn't know who the owner was. Every time we went to speak
with residents at the home it was a different person who didn't
really know what was going on except that the dogs were not wanted.
We wanted to offer help, but we didn't know who to talk to. I
never did see the puppies, but it sounded like they were being
Bowser offered to find the puppies
a home, explaining to whomever answered the door at Tatro's home
that there were several options available to the dogs' owner,
such as taking them to a shelter or an animal rescue organization.
Since no one at the home would take responsibility of ownership
however, the dogs remained in the backyard's 8-foot by 8-foot
"If someone needs help
with their animals, there are so many places and animal rescue
organizations to call," added Bowser. "You just don't
stick them in a box and allow them to starve to death."
The day after she called Simpson,
Bowser went for another walk past Tatro's home to check on the
dogs. This time she heard crying. And this time she decided to
take matters in her own hands by entering the property to look
into the pen herself.
"What I found was horrifying.
I had no idea it was that bad," said Bowser who described
the dogs' pen as being 5 inches thick with feces, reaching up
to the middle of the dogs' legs.
[photo below depicts empty food and water dishes, dried feces
and footprints of the three dogs kept in an 8-foot by 8-foot
had to have something over your nose the smell was so bad,"
Bowser continued. "I was talking to two dogs trying to comfort
them, and then all of a sudden I said, `My God!' Out of the corner
of my eye I saw something moving just a shriveled up little thing
lying there in the mud and feces. The dog could barely move.
At that point I literally went screaming to my neighbor's for
help and left a hysterical message with animal control."
She also called the Eureka Police
Department. A young officer, fresh on the force, came out to
assess the situation.
According to Bowser the officer
was "horrified," and immediately called his supervisor
to find out what sort of action he could take. He was told that
nothing could be done. Officer Manos, who rescued the dog the
next day, said the young officer "feels terrible,"
and requested that his name not appear in print. It is not clear
who the supervisor was.
On Sunday, March 24, Bowser
attended a meeting of Friends for Life, of which she is a member.
Bowser notified McFarland of the dogs' situation. McFarland then
contacted Manos, a friend.
"Thank God Tamara knew
Cindy (Officer Manos)," said Bowser. "I wouldn't have
known what to do otherwise, and if Tamara hadn't known Cindy,
then probably nothing would've gotten done."
When Manos arrived to investigate
shortly before 11 a.m., she found no one at home at the Tatro
residence. To get a better look inside the pen, she threw in
some pigs' ears as treats for the dogs so they'd stop jumping
up on the pen's walls. Manos noted that the bigger of the two
was dominant and took both treats. Although the dogs' living
conditions were squalid, and two metal bowls in the pen were
caked with dried mud indicating they had not been fed or watered
in some time, they appeared not to be in any immediate danger.
Manos called McFarland, telling her she had only seen two dogs
that seemed to be in fairly good shape. McFarland, alarmed that
the sick dog could possibly already be dead, insisted that there
were three dogs, and both women went back to take a second look.
"I thought it was dead,"
said Manos when she went back to the property with McFarland
and found the dog around 12:30 p.m. "There was small movement,
but she didn't do anything only emitted little shivers that was
her only response. She was cold to the touch."
"She was nothing but bones,"
Manos said, shaking her head at a loss for words.
Manos met Macune, the emergency
on-call veterinarian that day, at the McKinleyville Animal Care
Center at approximately 1:30 p.m. The dog's temperature had dropped
so low that it didn't even register on Macune's thermometer,
and it had no detectable blood pressure. According to Manos there
was also a "maggoty area" on the dog's body. Macune
guessed that the dog was around a year old, and said it weighed
half of its normal weight according to its size and breed.
"I can't ever remember
seeing a neglect case this bad. The degree of emaciation was
amazing," said Macune. "This was a long-term situation
that had been going on for weeks, if not months."
When the dog arrived at the
office, all the doors and windows of the building had to be opened
because of the overpowering stench.
"She was soaked in her
own excrement covering her entire body. The wetness was just
sucking out her heat even more," explained Macune. "At
that point she had lost the ability to shiver. The ability to
shiver is a basic mechanical body reflex, and once shivering
stops and hypothermia sets in death happens usually within 24
The dog, named Phoenix in the
hopes it would make a miraculous recovery, died later that night.
"At least she didn't have
to spend another night out in the cold," Macune said. "At
least she died warm and clean."
Manos went onto the property
only after she knew that a dog was in dire condition. According
to Simpson, Manos had greater freedom to act for another reason:
because she's a full-fledged police officer while Simpson is
not. "I'm essentially a civilian in uniform. Police officers
have a lot more power than I do," she said. She said when
she does need to write a warrant she has to track down a detective
in the department to help her with the technicalities.
Simpson, who's been an animal
control officer for 21 years, said that she used to more aggressively
enforce animal cruelty laws but that the legal system tended
to not back her up. She said she learned a hard lesson with one
case in particular a few years ago when, without first obtaining
a warrant, she seized animals that she believed were being neglected.
"The district attorney's office refused to file charges
and the person got all the animals back for free," Simpson
recalled. Not only that, Simpson said, but the city was out about
$1,000 in sheltering costs for the time the animals were impounded.
Simpson said animal control
used to have greater powers to inspect properties for possible
animal abuse, but that the law has changed over the years in
favor of protecting people's property and privacy rights.
"Animal control's powers
have been taken away from them," agreed Manos. "They
are not allowed to go onto private property without a warrant.
I could get on the property because I'm a police officer and
I had reason to believe a crime was being committed. I could
take Phoenix then without a warrant because of her appalling
McFarland and Kistler say California
law expressly gives animal control officers -- not just police
officers -- the power to go onto private property to seize animals
they believe are being abused. They pointed to a section of the
California penal code titled "Animals in specified places
without proper care or attention" that specifically applies
to "any peace officer, humane society officer or animal
control officer." The section reads: "When the officer
has reasonable grounds to believe that very prompt action is
required to protect the health or safety of the animal, the officer
shall immediately seize the animal." The section says nothing
about a search warrant or that the officer can only act in an
"If you get serious complaints
from credible people, I think it's clear that you can investigate
more thoroughly without having to go get a search warrant, which
is not that easy to get," Kistler said.
Simpson, for her part, said
"the way the laws read and how they play in court are two
very different things."
Bradley Woodall of the Animal
Legal Defense Fund in Portland, Ore., said that of all the cases
that have come across his desk lately, Phoenix's has been bothering
him considerably. "The suffering is extremely dire in this
particular case. I've seen photos. It's tragic," said Woodall
in a telephone interview from Portland. "Neglect like this
case is one of the easier crimes to correct if the situation
had been discovered sooner."
But Woodall refused to second-guess
the way Simpson handled the case. "Unfortunately, an animal
control officer has to see the animal in a public place before
they can seek a search warrant. Most animal cruelty cases are
well hidden on private property.
"Mrs. Tatro should have
fed her dogs and I'm not going to point a finger at anyone other
than Mrs. Tatro," Woodall said.
The worst-case scenario for
animal rights advocates is that the case against Tatro might
somehow get dismissed or the felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor.
It's happened before -- most recently last year, when felony
charges against Dan Ray Evans, a Eureka man accused of poisoning
five neighborhood cats (and represented by District Attorney-elect
Paul Gallegos), were all reduced to misdemeanors.
Woodall said he had concerns
that the case might get thrown out because Manos went onto the
property to rescue Phoenix without a search warrant and on the
basis of information obtained by someone who trespassed -- namely
Bowser. "The case may not be able to go forward because
of that," Woodall said.
Kistler expressed incredulity
at that possibility: "If you hear a neighbor stabbing his
wife, anyone can go to into the house because that's a criminal
act being performed. And it's a criminal act to not take proper
care of an animal. If something that's defined as a crime takes
place in your house, does that make it OK?"
Few Legal Protections
WHILE EUREKA ANIMAL CONTROL
has come under fire for not doing more to investigate the conditions
that led to the death of the 1-year-old female dog Phoenix, the
fact remains that legally speaking animals are considered private
property -- and hence can only be taken from their owners in
extreme cases of abuse and neglect.
"You can't just go and
take animals -- only in exigent circumstances when their life
is in danger. Animals are personal property. You have to understand
that principle," said Bob Timoni, director of the Haven
Humane Society in Redding and a retired member of the Humane
Society's state board of directors.
Bradley Woodall of the Animal
Legal Defense Fund, a Portland, Ore., organization, said that
"animals are considered property in every state in the country.
Relinquishing property before being found guilty is an idea that
is just now being proposed. To challenge property issues is futile
to take someone's property is a really hard thing to do."
Woodall said that of all the
animal cruelty cases being investigated in the nation, less than
10 percent are actually strong enough to be prosecuted in court.
Of the 14,000 reports of abuse and/or neglect his office received
last year, less than 5 percent made it to court, he said.
When asked if animals could
be better protected if their legal status was changed from property
to sentient creatures, Woodall responded, "Ideally that
would be the case, but there's a lot of resistance (from people
who) would rather not see those protective rights extended to
animals. Take factory farming and research animals, for instance.
These rights do extend more to dogs and cats because of their
intricate relationships with human beings, but it's a slippery
slope when discussing the value of one species over another."
To which Kathleen Kistler, executive
director of the Sequoia Humane Society in Eureka, retorted: "For
centuries children and women were considered property and weren't
legally protected either."
FOR EVIDENCE OF A SICK SOCIETY,
PAY A VISIT to Eureka's Sequoia
"We see so many animals
at the shelter who are on the verge of starvation, they're dying
or at death's door," said Executive Director Kathleen Kistler.
"There's mange, scars, broken tails totally obvious abuse
cases. Sometimes owners just bring their animals in to be put
to sleep. These are nice animals that have been obviously neglected.
Most of the time it's a lack of respect or caring, but sometimes
it's just ignorance."
"People need to stand up
and say this will not to be tolerated in their communities,"
said Bob Timoni, who heads the Haven Humane Society in Redding.
"Whether you win or lose an animal abuse case is irrelevant.
What does count is the message saying that we're not going to
tolerate letting animals be treated this way."
If Kistler had to point the
finger of blame somewhere, she'd single out "the entire
society because animals, children, the elderly and women aren't
thought of as important, and until people understand the interconnectedness
of all these things and start to care a little bit more nothing
is going to get done."
One sign of the low priority
given to protecting animals from abusive people -- and, for that
matter, to protecting people from dangerous animals -- is that
there is only one animal control officer for the entire city
of Eureka, and only three for all of Humboldt County.
Tamara McFarland of Friends
for Life Canine Rescue, a local organization, said more vigorous
prosecution of animal cruelty cases could end up providing better
protections to people. Why? Because many hardened criminals start
out victimizing animals.
"It's impossible to separate
cruelty to people and cruelty to animals. Study upon study has
shown that people who abuse animals are far more likely to abuse
children or spouses or to become serial murderers."
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