When Is Taking Animal Protection Into Your Own Hands O.K.?

(Picture Credit: Getty Images)

(Picture Credit: Getty Images)

Debbie Swenerton was arrested outside Albuqurque, New Mexico, for alleged dog-napping. According to most reports, the woman truly believed she was springing dogs from what she deemed abusive situations. I admit: Upon first hearing of the case, I was intrigued.

Early accounts suggested Swenerton was “rescuing” dogs who lived outside year round and who had very little, if any, protection from extreme heat or cold. Sources say she took them to local shelters with the goal of getting them rehomed — she wasn’t looking for financial gain. Presented that way, her actions become almost (I said almost) understandable, if not particularly wise, sustainable, or even guaranteed to achieve her desired outcome.

The more I read, though, the less sympathetic to Swenerton I became. Some reports indicated she was actually breaking into people’s homes and confiscating their animals. (Can you imagine? I’d do something uncharacteristically violent and/or highly unladylike if anyone tried that with my pets.) And accounts that she dumped two puppies from a moving vehicle during a police pursuit doesn’t exactly reinforce the any notion she was concerned with animal welfare.

Details of this particular case aside, the question remains: When is it ok to take extreme — even illegal — action to benefit the welfare of another? How much discomfort or suffering must an individual endure before it becomes ethically inexcusable not to act? And maybe the most difficult question: When do the actions of a rogue vigilante make the rest of us advocates look like a bunch of kooks (ultimately doing more damage than good to the cause)?

Like it or not, in order to make any comprehensive and lasting impact, one generally has to work within the system. And in order to change deeply ingrained, old-school ideas about animals, one has to meet her potential audience where they are.

Dogs Deserve Better does just that, effectively (and legally!). The organization works on behalf of chained dogs, with the goal of bringing them into the home as opposed to tied up outside. Their tactics are neither dramatic nor instantaneously successful, but long term, they’re making a huge impact. The DDB website offers tons of tangible guidance, including steps for what to do when you see a chained dog, downloadable materials to help in the effort, and interviews with folks who have improved local laws.

That doesn’t mean you should go home and write a letter to your senator instead of intervening when witnessing an incident of animal cruelty. But there’s no blanket advice to be given — so much depends on the individual situation. While animal abuse is illegal in this country, laws vary from state to state; the definitions and interpretations of cruelty itself are inconsistent. To complicate matters, most states consider dogs (and cats) to be property of their owners — you can’t legally barge into a person’s home and insist he treat his property better.

Unsexy though it is, education has to be a huge part of the answer. Sure, I realize that’s an oversimplification, but this is a blog post, not a treatise on how to shift cultural values. As a country (as a planet? Oh god, now I’m getting cocky), we need to evolve our deep-rooted beliefs about and attitude toward animals. You wouldn’t any more shut your dog outside alone than in the cold than you would send your child to school without shoes if you could help it.

As a story person versus a numbers/big picture person, it’s hard to focus on comprehensive, long-term education policies. Especially when there’s a dog or cat sitting outside in the cold right now with only an empty, drafty doghouse or bush to “protect” him from the elements. So do something. Make calls, use internet resources, pursue every avenue available. Because you can’t help animals if you’re in jail. And you don’t serve the cause by behaving as though you’re above the law.

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