Friday, October 03, 2008

Animal cruelty case: a plea and my reply

I received the following letter this morning, forwarded to me by the breeder of my whippet. It concerns the local case of an unscrupulous and (by any commonsense definition) cruel and insensitive person whose many animals have suffered from her neglect and evident greed.

The letter calls for a grassroots campaign and for an aggressive official response to the situation. Although the full extent of the law seems already to have been brought to bear, and many of the affected animals are receiving care from volunteers and from local government animal welfare agencies, the letter seems to call for more. This is concerning to me, as an owner of animals within the same general jurisdiction.

The original letter follows. My response, which I sent back to the breeder and to the author of the letter, is reprinted beneath.

Friends, I wanted to let you know about a recent animal cruelty case in West Baton Rouge. On August 15, 2008, Ann Kissner, an Ascension Parish public school teacher was arrested on 79 counts of animal cruelty and neglect. Animals seized included Whippets, German Shepherds, Chihuahuas, Poodles, Greyhounds, cats, various birds, and numerous hooved animals. I personally saw photographs of the mud lot these animals were kept in, as well as hear first hand from an attending veterinarian the diseased and malnourished condition of these animals. Dead animals were found on the premises and several others have since died from health complications. All of the dogs were infested with heart worms and fleas. The hook bills had parasites rarely found in their species and linked to the unsanitary conditions in which they were kept. I saw a female Whippet with newborns (some of which were found dead) whose underbody was entirely infected.

Kissner has routinely discarded animals at both West and East Baton Rouge Animal Control centers over the years. WRAP (Whippet Rescue and Placement) has routinely rehomed her unwanted dogs. In July of 2008, Kissner dropped 3 Whippets (loose) at the EBR facility after hours. One was never recovered. A volunteer at the facility witnessed the (criminal under state law) act and Kissner was questioned. Despite an admittance of guilt, she received a slap on the wrist as there was not enough evidence or interest to prosecute.

Kissner has not been active with the American Kennel Club or any of the national breed clubs for at least the last 10 years. AKC and its affiliates require members to abide by ethical standards and codes of conduct. Unlike other registries, AKC inspects the kennels of breeders who use its registry. It's unknown if any registry was used but we do know that Kissner sold her puppies over the internet-certainly not a crime in itself but a convenient means to conceal the wretched conditions in which her animals were kept.

Since her arrest Kissner has released a majority of the animals but has placed a hold on 7 Whippets, 4 German Shepherds, 6 Chihuahuas, 1 cat, and 4 Macaws-most intact/breeding pairs. Because she has not released these animals, by law, they may not be treated for such serious conditions such as heart worms. They can only be made comfortable.

Last week we learned Kissner had petitioned the sheriff to release the 4 Macaws into the custody of her boyfriend. It was felt that such a release would be a precursor to the eventual release of the other animals. A grass roots letter writing campaign to the sheriff, the district attorney, and the judge was initiated resulting in the sheriff denying Kissner's request. At this point Kissner expressed the intent to destroy the animals should they come back into her possession.

It is now 7 weeks since the seizure and Kissner still has not given permission for the unreleased animals to receive the medical care they require.

Generous volunteers have taken the released Whippets into their homes to foster. Other dogs are housed and cared for by CAAWS, All Pets Hospital, and West Baton Rouge Animal Control. Formal adoptions await the outcome of legal proceedings.

This week, my attorney brother volunteered his services on behalf of the animals and has formally contacted the district attorney to discuss the case that was to be heard October 6th. Today, he was told the arraignment has been moved back a month. Not ideal for the animals who aren't receiving 100% of the medical care they need but an indication that a more considered and careful look will be afforded the case instead of a warning and fine. At least that is our hope.

Louisiana is fortunate to have good animal protection laws in place, caring governmental and legal authorities, active humanitarian groups, under funded but hard working animal control centers, and a citizenry that steps up to the plate when needed. Nonetheless, many wonder if Kissner will indeed be relieved of her animals, punished to the full extent of the law, required to pay restitution for medical/housing care, and prohibited from keeping animals in the future.

I'm asking you to join us in our grass roots efforts to communicate to the judge, sheriff, and district attorney that Kissner's actions are unacceptable. Please consider taking a moment to write, fax, or call at your earliest opportunity. Even if you do not live in Louisiana, we want the decision makers to know the world is watching.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and for sharing as appropriate.

I replied:

This is terrible. But I would caution that you have to consider carefully the possible outcomes here. Obviously this woman is unscrupulous (and probably mentally ill in some or several ways), but her case represents the kind of high profile, highly emotional circumstance under which a lot of bad legislation is passed. The HSUS, whatever your thoughts on that organization might be, would certainly love to exploit this situation as “proof” of the evils of keeping and breeding pets in general.

This is certainly an opportunity for the community of breeders and owners to step in. The good news to relate here is about the volunteers---responsible and caring animal owners---who have gone out of their way to address this problem on behalf of the individual animals involved.

But make no mistake: A wholesale media and legislative response to this isolated incident will do more harm than good to the livelihoods of responsible breeders and owners in Louisiana.

Deborah, do you want more restrictions, fees, inspections and paperwork to contend with? Do you want an inspired and overzealous class of animal control officers deciding which of your animals need confiscating? How many of your whippets do you think might look “undernourished” to a jury of your peers? I know Rina would….and we both know different!

As a falconer, I hunt game with trained hawks and dogs. You know how much I love my animals and how well cared-for they are. You know how many permits and regulatory hoops I jump through each year to keep and use them. But my life with my animals is only a pen stroke away from vanishing. One local ordinance forbidding this or that use of an animal, however well meaning, could wipe me out. I don’t have the resources to fight it. How can I expect non-falconers, or non-hunters, or folks without animals at all, to understand what it is I do and help me protect it?

I don’t expect any such thing. What I rely on (in addition to my state and federal permits), and what you rely on as well, are the general principles of private ownership of animals and our rights as American citizens to pursue happiness and enjoy our freedom. By these principles, we are not required to explain ourselves to our neighbors. We are not required to obtain their approval of our activities. We are not required to meet their standards of what is worthwhile, what constitutes good husbandry, or what is cruel. To some (see: HSUS), keeping dozens of dogs in penned-up on your property, for any purpose at all, is defacto cruelty and should not be legal.

Animal ownership is a matter of personal responsibility and community awareness. We must rely on each other to protect our own freedoms and to address problems as they arise among ourselves whenever possible.

When we instead put that responsibility into the hands of those outside our community, we give up our right to decide what’s best for ourselves. By giving others the power to, for example, prohibit someone from keeping animals in the future, we put our own futures with animals in great peril!

I cannot stress this more strongly. As you continue this campaign to see justice for the animals abused by this one West Baton Rouge resident, please remember that we will all be affected by the shape of the official response to that abuse.

UPDATE: The letter's author sends this reply to me and allowed that I share it:

As a borzoi and cardigan welsh corgi fancier; an owner of large dogs; someone who courses sighthounds; a responsible breeder; and a keeper of dogs in a metropolitan city; I can well appreciate your caution. I share it!

Groups like HSUS would love to restrict my rights and take away my animals. We in no way intend to include any outside organization in our efforts—especially HSUS! They are not our friends. However, I feel that if we do not regulate ourselves, others (like animal rights groups) will do it for us. We have good laws on the books. We just want to make sure the system [works].

If we remain silent, quietly cleaning up her mess year after year, our inaction looks complicit. It is not against the law to own, breed, or even profit from animals. It is not criminal to sell animals on the internet, nor do we want it to be. It is simply the manner in which one has grossly neglected her wards that we wish to stop, and publicly say, “This is not acceptable.”

So I must respectfully agree to disagree. The grass roots initiative is working, and has those in the legal system on notice. We just want them to do their jobs.

If and when such legislation as is routinely introduced in such states as California is brought to Louisiana, I will fight against it. (I fight against it now, having supported efforts against their mandatory spay proposals.) We will be able to point to the proactive efforts of responsible Louisiana breeders that take care of their own business, sound the alarm and self regulate—as successful and responsible efforts in our community. I understand it's a tricky business but again, I would much prefer to be proactive than to be silent and have others (like HSUS) speak for me.

I once referred to myself as a "caretaker." Animal rights wackos changed that. I am an "owner" and will work to maintain this status to protect my rights.


Heather Houlahan said...

I think your correspondent's error is in a lack of specificity.

The emergent problem that is not being addressed is the welfare of the confiscated animals that the defendant has not released. Everything else can creak along at whatever pace.

What needs to be done in this case is some version of the following:

• Court proceedings expedited so that the animals that have not been "released" by the defendant can have their final disposition decided by the judge; either they are returned to the defendant if she is not guilty, or the defendant forfeits them and they receive definitive treatment.

• A court order allowing the unreleased "evidence" to be definitively treated, with proper documentation.

• Prosecutorial pressure on the defendant to permit definitive treatment of the unreleased animals; something along the lines of explaining to the defendant that insisting that the animals not be treated while in custody is an aggravating factor in the cruelty charge.

Louisiana law is unique and mysterious to those of us in the other 49 states, so not sure how any of the above would work.

I expected, from your preface, that your correspondent would be screaming for new laws, etc. I didn't see that. I see an emotional reaction to a horrific situation which, because it involves animals, your correspondent fears will not be vigorously pursued by the authorities. What that emotional reaction needs is clarity, focus, and specificity -- because you are right, without those, it can fuel a witch-hunt atmosphere that affects much more than this high-profile cruelty case.

Matt Mullenix said...

Heather thanks for that excellent commentary! I will forward to the author of the letter.