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Guest editorial: Dirty little secrets and lies

Her chain was just long enough to reach her water pail and whatever food might be there, but if she made one full circle of the tree trunk her chain would catch and then she wouldn’t be able to drink or eat. There were no toys, of course, or straw to keep her warm in winter and when it rained her patch of dirt became an oozing mess. She was dirty and she smelled. I don’t know how long she’d been living that way; I first saw her three years ago and she was already chained.
In what sense, I wonder, other than legal, does she belong to the person who chained her? What is “ownership” and “property” when that property is a sentient being, capable of suffering yet unable to advocate for its own needs and desires? I’m not speaking of owners who fence their dogs or keep them in pens and barns. I’m referring to owners who chain a dog to a tree or to a stake in the ground and walk away. Maybe the dog will get fed that day and maybe it won’t. Maybe it will get water that day, and maybe it won’t. But it will never get a bath, or medical care, or a kind word, or a pat on the head, or any exercise. And, because chained dogs are unable to defend themselves, they are vulnerable to attack from other animals and to being stolen by someone even less caring than the owner. Some chained dogs are young or small, some are old and already “broken” – but they are never pets in the familiar sense of the term. A chained dog will never get to be part of a family with an acknowledged place in the “pack” and thus it will never know anything but anxiety, fear, and frustration. Not all chained dogs grow vicious; some become depressed or exhibit self-mutilating behaviors from the stress of their living conditions. These dogs are often chained in the most hidden parts of yards: among shrubbery, behind outbuildings, other spaces where they can’t be seen easily from the street. They are as forgotten or ignored as the trash. These chained dogs are the dirty little secrets in our neighborhoods, and their presence is no more restricted to a particular socioeconomic status than domestic violence or illegal drug use. It is disconcerting to live next door to, or down the street from, a chained dog; you’re anxious for your family’s safety and disturbed by the dog’s appalling living conditions. I know people in our community who throw food over fences at night, afraid to be seen by a dog’s owner but too kind-hearted to let an animal starve to death. And even if you’re not that concerned for the animals’ living conditions, you should be concerned that these dirty little secrets are dangerous to you and bad for your property values.
I discovered this dog, in fact, only because it was winter and the trees around her were bare. From then on, I made it a habit to visit her whenever I was in the neighborhood and, always, no matter the time of day, she was sitting or lying in the dirt (or mud if it had rained recently). I did see a car parked at the house from time to time and hoped someone was taking her in at night. Eventually, there was no car, no sign of life in the building, and her bowl remained empty. For a few days, she was entangled in her chain and couldn’t move but a foot or two from the tree. During that time it rained and I couldn’t help but think of her there without any shelter.
To understand the nature of someone who gets a dog only to chain it and, maybe, feed it from time to time but otherwise claim no interaction is not something I can do; this is one of those unfathomable mysteries of the human heart. Logic and reason play no part in chaining, as far as I can tell, as we’ve learned from numerous studies that a chained dog offers no real protection of life or property and, more often than not, presents a danger to both, especially to children. (For the troubling statistics on this issue, see the website www.dogsdeservebetter.org.) The evidence is overwhelming that dogs protect best when they are treated as members of the family, which then gives them something to feel protective of. To condemn a creature, who is capable of great loyalty and affection, to an uncertain life at the end of chain is to forfeit the gift of that dog’s very nature and make into something it is not.
Currently, unlike several other counties in Georgia and elsewhere in the nation, Sumter County has no law against 24/7 chaining, though requirements are in place for the length of the chain, for example, and access to food, water, and shelter. But entangled chains, with or without heavy padlocks, make it difficult for the dogs to reach any water, food, or shelter that might be available, and the dangers to the dogs from embedded collars and chains are well documented, if you can bear to look at the photos.
Fortunately, our community has someone who is in an official position to help educate pet owners and rescue animals from owners who do not comply with the law. I am convinced, in fact, that Mr. Obara, the Sumter County Animal Control Officer, must be that person of whom Albert Schweitzer spoke in his Prayer for Animals: “….and for those who deal with them, we ask a heart of compassion and gentle hands and kindly words.” This man is both compassionate and professional, and I appreciate him for what he does for the animals and residents of Sumter County. (Thanks, too, to the person who was wise enough to hire him.) Still, after Mr. Obara agreed this dog was in danger, I worried about her: what if she couldn’t be saved? Although the Sumter County Humane Society shelter staff does an admirable job of reducing the numbers of healthy, adoptable animals being killed for lack of space, there is always a risk that an animal won’t find a new home. What if we were “rescuing” her from one form of death for another (euthanasia) if no rescue or foster would take her? If she could speak, would she say she was willing to take the risk?
That morning when I knelt beside her, unsnapped the chain and slipped on a leash, she leaned against me for the briefest moment and sighed. I want to think I knew her heart at that moment and that if she’d been the one able to choose, she’d opt to go because either way, a real home or euthanasia, she’d be free. But I cannot know this, of course, and it could have been that she was just tired or frightened.
After Mr. Obara lifted her into his truck and drove away to the shelter, I believed this dog’s sad story had ended on a more hopeful note than most. She was sweet and cute; perhaps the shelter staff would find her a caring owner and a decent home. Indeed, the story should have ended there, but it didn’t. Within a week’s time, the dog was returned to the owner who promptly chained her to the tree, back in the dirt, back to her life at the end of that chain.
After notifying Mr. Obara, I went to the shelter for answers where, I was told, it was a mistake. I was told that it had been a very busy week with many animals being brought in who were in much worse condition than this dog was, and she was taking up valuable cage space that needed to be used for some other animal who needed it more. And I was told that there are two sides to every story and that the chained dog’s owner had a side that needed to be considered.
In all fairness, our local shelter is underfunded, understaffed, and overflowing with animals nobody wants or is capable of caring for. But I don’t need a lesson in animal shelter life; I have cleaned pens and cages, bathed dogs, sat with the sick and injured, and cradled the dying. What I haven’t had experience with is a humane society shelter employee, the ultimate advocate for helpless animals, defending the owner of a chained dog brought to the shelter by the Animal Control Officer who left clear instructions that the dog was not to be returned to its owner. And, while there are, indeed, at least two sides to every story, there is no story more poignant or persuasive than the life of this dog kept on that chain for years, and there is no story, ever, the owner could relate that would justify the virtual abandonment of “property” that lives, breathes, and suffers. To be clear, this dog was not failed by the system; she was failed by the people who are an integral part of that system. The system, such as it exists, worked: citizen noticed neglected animal, concerned citizen contacted proper authorities, proper authority took immediate legal action, and then, oops. Certainly, it was not up to the shelter staff to reach out to the owner and return the dog; had the owner been in compliance with the law and the dog’s situation acceptable, Mr. Obara wouldn’t have removed her from the owner’s property.
Again, in fairness to the shelter, it is overburdened as are all such facilities. I am not advocating anyone withdraw support for the shelter, or the staff and their challenging work. In fact, two days after my visit, I was back at the shelter to join members of my garden club in pruning and cleaning up the landscaping – a task we do voluntarily twice a year. Remember, we don’t have animal shelters because of animals; we have animal shelters because of people. It is the people who do not have their animals spayed and neutered, who let them roam freely near dangerous roads, who don’t provide medical care when their animals are sick or injured, and who abandon their animals when circumstances change. It is people who starve animals, who beat them, who chain them, who force them to breed over and over again in filthy conditions, and who make them fight each other for money and for entertainment of the worst sort. Shelters are a necessity in our communities because so many people don’t provide adequate care for their animals.
Some might argue this is one dog’s story in a world of ever-increasing troubles humans must face: terrorism, poverty, hunger, disease, war, drought, and environmental devastation. What are the lives of dogs when there are so many people with problems? How can Sumter Countians be expected to worry over the lives of animals when people are suffering? But that’s the point. If we can’t make life better for one dog, how can we expect to fix anything in our community or elsewhere? Perhaps we would do well to remember Gandhi’s words: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Doing something meaningful to help these dirty little secrets in our yards would be progress toward that goal.
Making it illegal to chain a dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a small step, but it is a start and it would benefit all the animals, human or otherwise, in our community as well as the people who might think about moving here. Chatham County (GA), for example, is one county that has a law against chaining: Sec 9-5035. “Tethering. It shall be prohibited in unincorporated Chatham County or within the limits of the City to retain or confine to property of dogs or cats in a manner achieved by tethering to stationary or non-stationary objects including but not limited to, dog houses, barrels or other stationary objects as such means of confinement within the property” (Code 2007, §9-5035).  Also, if you know about one of these dogs, chained every hour of the day for every day of its life, call the Sumter County Sheriff’s office at 229. 924.4094. Someone there will get your information to Mr. Obara.
In yet another demonstration of the perversities of pet ownership, the re-chained dog’s owner posted “Private Property” signs around the dog’s dirt patch and installed cameras, presumably to prevent anyone from attempting to feed or comfort the dog. Unfortunately, Mr. Obara will once again have to employ his own underfunded, understaffed, and overwhelmed resources to visit her regularly to see if she’s being fed or has become entangled again and can’t reach shelter or water. Owner of this dog: you understand now that what you are doing is wrong, and you are causing her to suffer by keeping her chained for all these years. If you won’t surrender her to others who will be kinder to her, the pain you’ve caused her will find its way into your own life. Long after she’s dead, you will remember how this was for her, the wrong you did, and the memory of it will usurp your happiness and steal whatever peace you hope to find. In other words, you will not be free of this, ever.
Unless the shelter staff can persuade the owner to give her up, or 24/7 chaining becomes illegal, this dog is alone again in a world that begins and ends on a chain. I try not to think about how confused she must have been when she was led back and snapped to that chain. Or how she might wait for food that will never come, or the treats she enjoyed so much, and the petting. But she is a dog, and I don’t really know what she’s thinking. What I do know is that she had a chance for a life and now it is gone. And for her, and for all the other dirty little secrets chained throughout Sumter County, another winter is coming.

Kay Sassi Pace, Sumter County native, teaches English at GSW.