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(from Kalamazoo Gazette)

(from Kalamazoo Gazette)

Anyone who watches the news or reads the local paper in western Michigan is probably already familiar with the story of Chewy, a Corgi-Chocolate Lab mix from Gobles, who was part of a social media firestorm last month.  For those who are not familiar, following a fairly healthy amount of snow in mid-November in western Michigan, a neighbor who lives near Chewy, called the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Office complaining of alleged animal abuse by Chewy’s owner.  The neighbor snapped photos of Chewy being tied to a tree and left outside during the snowstorms and claimed he was left without food, water, or adequate shelter.  Sheriff deputies investigated and found the dog to be in good health and displaying no signs of distress or mistreatment.  The director of the SPCA of Southwest Michigan also drove to the house and left straw, a dog house, food, and a heated water dish as part of its “Cold nose warm hearts” program.  Despite the assurances of sheriff deputies and the kind acts of the SPCA, the neighbor continued to phone complaints into the Sheriff’s Office.  Over 200 calls from other concerned individuals were routed to the county’s animal shelter, the Kalamazoo Gazette received emails and calls from as far away as Australia and South Africa, and a Facebook posting on a site called Dogs Deserve Better generated nearly 2,000 likes.  Tragically, a short time after this firestorm began, Chewy died, not from neglect, but from escaping from his home and being struck by a vehicle.

Section 750.50 of the Michigan Compiled Laws sets forth the minimum standard of care for animals in Michigan.  In Michigan, adequate care is defined as “the provision of sufficient food, water, shelter, sanitary conditions, exercise, and veterinary medical attention in order to maintain an animal in a state of good health.”  It further defines shelter as: adequate protection from the elements and weather conditions suitable for the age, species, and physical condition of the animal so as to maintain the animal in a state of good health.  Shelter, for a dog, includes 1 or more of the following:

  1. The residence of the dog’s owner or other individual.
  2. A doghouse that is an enclosed structure with a roof…dry bedding when the outdoor temperature is or is predicted to drop below freezing.
  3. A structure, including a garage, barn, or shed…to protect the dog from exposure to extreme temperatures.

Given that most states at a minimum require necessary sustenance and shelter and, at a maximum, may impose an affirmative duty to provide veterinary care or shelter from inclement weather, Michigan’s laws meet and exceed the minimum expectations nationally.

The case of Chewy has generated renewed debate in that community regarding the minimum standard of care that should be owed to animal companions.  Typically, failing to provide a minimum standard of care for animals constitutes neglect or animal cruelty.  Cases of neglect can impose a high degree of suffering upon an animal not only due to the fact that these cases sometimes are not uncovered for months or years but also because the animal is often times suffering from chronic pain and disease.  State anti-cruelty statutes often establish what the minimum standard of care includes.  While many defendants in cases of criminal neglect of an animal often challenge the statutes as being overbroad and unconstitutionally vague, courts have repeatedly rejected these arguments.

When an animal has been starved to death or has died of exposure, the evidence makes it easier to show that the owner acted recklessly or breached the standard of care it owed to its animal companion.  In cases such as Chewy’s however, where there is a less prominent breach of the standard of care, expert testimony may be required to demonstrate there was a breach.  In Jordan v. United States, (269 A.2d 848 (D.C. App. 1970)), three witnesses, including a physician, police officer, and the president of the Washington Humane Society, all testified that they witnessed a full-grown German Shepherd on a three foot chain on the defendant’s back porch.  The physician in particular testified that from a distance of 40 yards he thought the dog looked undernourished, had no visible shelter and the temperature that day was below freezing (27 degrees).  In finding the owner guilty, the trial court made no mention as to whether the dog had adequate food or water and instead focused on the dog being left on the porch in unusually cold weather.  The appeals court reversed the decision of the trial court and ordered that a judgment of acquittal be entered for the defendant.  The specific reasoning for the appeals court’s decision was that “[i]n the absence of testimony by someone experienced in the care of a dog of this type, not necessarily a veterinarian, that the shelter or protection from the weather supplied this dog on this occasion would to cause the dog to suffer, the evidence was insufficient to sustain the conviction.”

A southwest Michigan veterinarian, who was not involved in the case with Chewy, echoed the opinion expressed by the appeals court in Washington D.C. stating that the needs of dogs can vary based on many factors and an examination can provide authorities with a clearer picture as to how the animal is doing.  The veterinarian also provided important considerations for animal companion owners to contemplate regarding their dog and the elements:

  1. “Is this a dog that has lived in a house all its life or one that has lived outside?”
  2. “Even with a thick coat, animals need shelter from the wind and a place to curl up and conserve heat.”
  3. “Calories need to increase as temperatures decrease.”
  4. “Animals need constant access to clean water that is not frozen over.”

Out of all the types of animal cruelty cases, animal neglect cases are sometimes the trickiest to prosecute as evidenced by the Jordan case above.  After the death of Chewy, a necropsy was performed that revealed that Chewy was healthy and slightly overweight.  A doctor with the ASPCA said that “the dog had no frostbite and that he understood this was an outside dog but a cared-for dog.”    A few days after Chewy tragically died, the neighbor appeared before the Van Buren County commissioners asking them to enact what would be known as “Chewy’s Law.”  Amongst other requirements, she wants to see the law changed to require owners to bring their animal companions indoors when the temperature drops below 32 degrees and require owners to provide a heated water bowl.  While no action was taken by the Van Buren County commissioners, a second proposal was introduced by another citizen seeking to impose penalties on individuals who continually call animal control when complaints remain unsubstantiated.

As we evolve as a society and many of us continue to view our animal companions as members of the family as opposed to pets, our feelings towards them naturally change.  If we would not leave one of our children outdoors without adequate winter clothing and protection from the elements, it is inconceivable that we would do something similar to an animal companion.  Just as many of us may disagree as to how others raise their children, and if given the opportunity would raise those children differently, many of us feel similarly about how others raise and treat their animals.  Unfortunately, just because we disagree with someone’s actions because they conflict with our own sense of right and wrong, it does not make them illegal.  While there are arguments to be made on both sides as to whether Chewy was or was not a victim of neglect, lost in all the commotion is the impact that this series of unfortunate events had on Chewy’s owners, specifically, their children.  The owner who was never publicly identified stated that his children were afraid someone would come and steal their dog and therefore did not leave Chewy outside after the story broke.  People were showing up at the owner’s house and making threats via email and phone.  The owner stated that the family was basically forced into hiding as a result of the social media campaign launched against them by their neighbor.

All of us who advocate for the rights of animals and who are passionate about our animal companions want what is best for them.  We should never lose our perspective though that there is a right and wrong way to effectuate change.  If we disagree with the current state of animal cruelty laws then we should lobby our legislature to make the changes we desire.  Animal rescue organizations and humane societies can put language in their adoption contracts asking if the adoptable animal will be indoor only to weed out applicants planning on leaving the dog or cat outdoors and seek to enforce violations of the agreement should they come to light.  Further, just because one may disagree with another person’s standard of care and would not choose to act in a similar manner, would the person still feel as strongly and self-righteous if the animal were seized by animal control, thrown into a kennel, and euthanized because the shelter was full or they weren’t adopted?  I know my answer to that question, do you know your answer?

Abigail Murray and Michael Rouvina are Michigan attorneys who focus their law practice on Animal Law and Animal Companion Mediation, as well as Business Law, Family Law, Probate/Estate Planning, and Alternative Dispute Resolution at the law firm of Murray & Rouvina, PLC in Kalamazoo, MI. You can find more information at www.zoocitylawyers.com.