Sign of civilization

July 10, 2012

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of these musings that I enjoy the company of animals, especially dogs. While I strongly disagree with the current trend to make people the “guardians” of them, or to give them “rights”, I have no tolerance for cruelty.
When cruelty to animals is mentioned, most people think of things that happen in other places, for instance, the dog fighting prosecution of Michael Vick and others. Cruelty is defined in Texas law as including failure to provide necessary food, water, and care for an animal – whether livestock or “nonlivestock” – for which a person is responsible. Abandonment, that is, leaving the animal without making provision for its care, is also a criminal act. Sadly, these are crimes we are seeing with increasing frequency, and history tells us that we will see even more often with the combination of a bad economy and a dry summer upon us.
In the past, law enforcement in Nolan County has been involved in the investigation of both livestock (cattle) and nonlivestock (puppies) cruelty cases. Grass is still sparse in many parts of the county, and both quality and quantity may be inadequate to keep animals in what the penal code describes as “a state of good health. Different types of stock require different types of feed; what is adequate for a goat can starve a sheep. Cattle thrive on grasses that are far from enough for horses. The responsibility of owning an animal includes providing adequate food or finding another home for the animals. Hay is expensive, as is feed. Most ranchers will “sell down” their herds or flocks in dry years, keeping only what the land and their budget can maintain.
As a general rule, the persons who find themselves with stock that is underfed are “hobby” raisers; that is, persons with a few head of stock which they obtained because they “live in the country”. Sometimes they are almost pets, bottle raised from weanling age or obtained while young; sometimes they were purchased to “mow” the pasture – and have done too good a job of it. With money tight in the household, feed and veterinary care for these animals becomes a low priority. At that point, a decision needs to be made to care for them or sell them. Abandoning them, or simply opening the gate and letting them go is not a legal option. Either can – and will – bring prosecution on the owner.
It isn’t always easy to feel sympathy for some types of stock…but very young puppies manage to pull at the heart of almost everyone. This time of year, puppies and kittens seem to line the streets and county roads, either wandering homeless or as corpses. They tear at everyone’s hearts, and most end up dying a cruel death from dehydration, lack of food, or as prey to another animal – or roadkill.
This is also the time of year that law enforcement in the city tends to be called concerning the carcass in the yard next door. The aroma which arises from a dead animal in the summer is both unmistakable and intolerable for most people – not to mention the flies drawn by the aroma. Water and shade, as well as food, are necessary for the survival of animals in this part of the country in the summer. They don’t have to come indoors; those that have not become accustomed to air conditioning can manage outside but they must be able to get out of the sun and slake their thirst. While dogs are (or at least can be) smart, they do not think through consequences. A dog chained to a tree doesn’t realize that running around the tree will shorten his chain to the point that he can no longer reach the water; nor does a rambunctious dog understand that tipping the bucket in the morning means that the afternoon will be dry. These are the times we must think for them, securing them in a safe manner and arranging for water containers that cannot be tipped. Probably the most heartless that I have heard involved people who left home, couldn’t find someone to provide care for their animals, so simply left them for two weeks….and were surprised to find them dead on their return.
One mark of a civilized community is the care it takes of creatures unable to care for themselves. We have domesticated animals; that means that they are “cared for” by people. Suddenly requiring that they fend for themselves after a lifetime of care, or tossing young animals out to be on their own is, legally and morally, cruel. We pride ourselves on our community; most people who live in Nolan County believe it to be a “good” place to live, to raise children, to grow old. What example is set when puppies are “tossed out” at the lake or other places to become coyote bait; or animals are simply ignored?
There are alternatives. Even though they may involve ending the life of the pet, puppy, or livestock, doing so quickly is much more humane than death by starvation, thirst, or predator. To a certain extent, each of us who sees this type activity and doesn’t report it contributes to the tarnishing of our community. Persons convicted for the first time of abandoning or failing to feed animals face a fine of up to $4000 and up to one year in jail; a second time is a felony. There is no criminal sanction for those who walk past; only the knowledge that, by their silence, they contributed to suffering.

Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to editor@sweetwaterreporter.com.

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