8/19/2006

Paging Common Sense

A recent news story detailed the plight of a little girl who was mauled by a dog at a local animal shelter. Although I don't recall seeing any coverage at the time of the attack, at least one local paper followed up with the victim as she recovers months later. At just 6 years old, this child has facial scars & has been seriously traumatized by the attack, as you might imagine.

What's even more sad is that this attack should never have even happened. The mother of this child is so clueless & irresponsible, it's sickening. She apparently knows nothing about dogs, thus wouldn't be a responsible dog owner anyway & shouldn't have a dog.

Even more disturbing, the girl's father is now suing the animal shelter. No good can come of this & it's one of those situations that just makes you want to cry in frustration. It's the now-typical saga that plays out daily in our zealously litigious society: Someone does something very, very stupid. They hurt themselves or an innocent party by doing this stupid thing. Then some innocent third party is somehow held responsible for consumer stupidity. As a result, society as a whole suffers in various ways. Here's what happened:

The girl's mother & her boyfriend took their two young daughters (ages 4 & 6) to adopt a dog. The 6 year old was attracted to a malamute because he had the same name as her father & brother.

This 80-pound dog was a stray that had only been at the shelter a few days. Employees knew nothing about the dog's background or temperment with children, but this was of no concern to the mother.

Rather than seek out a dog that the shelter staff could vouch for, or a dog that had a good temperment with kids, the adults wanted this dog. The mother, boyfriend & two girls went into a room to play with the dog but the dog seemed uncomfortable. Then the dog & the little girl were left unsupervised & the attack occurred.

Mom's first error was making a poor choice of pet for small children. Her second error was ignoring what the dog tried to tell them. Instead of recognizing that the dog was anxious & maybe not ready to be adopted, didn't like strangers or didn't like children, she simply chose to assume that he needed to relieve himself.

So the mother left the room to go fill out adoption paperwork!

Picture it. You go to a shelter & you're daughter says, "I want that one, Mommy, because he has the same name as Daddy!" The dog she's pointing to is bigger then both kids & is of an aggressive breed not known for being fun-loving family pets. You ask about the dog & the staff tells you they don't know anything about this stray.

That means he's either been abandoned by a terrible owner or he's a feral dog, neither of which bode well for a kid's pet. They bring the dog into a room to interact with you but instead of everyone having fun, the dog is stressed & agitated. Do you immediately request adoption papers? I think not. This woman isn't knowledgable or responsible enough to even be a dog owner, let alone raise children.

But the story continues:

After the mother leaves the room, the dog knocks over the 4 year old, then puts his mouth near the 6 year old's face. Instead of moving the dog away from the girl, the boyfriend turns his back on them. When he turns around again, the dog is biting the girl.

What happened to this little girl is heartbreaking. But the idea of her father suing the animal shelter is even more so.

Shelters shouldn't be held responsible for your lack of common sense when adopting a pet.

Having adopted shelter dogs for years, I'm astonished by her total lack of good judgment. Any responsible dog owner would elect to steer kids toward a dog the shelter staff can vouch for, even if it means traveling to other shelters to find the "right" dog for the family.

At the very least, she should've elected to return at a later time, once the shelter was more familiar with this new dog. Adult animals with completely unknown backgrounds are rarely a suitable pet for small children, if ever.

Anyone looking to adopt should be cautious of a new stray, since the shelter hasn't yet had time to evaluate & the animal comes with no background information. When the dog showed anxiety, the adults ignored him. The dog was clearly either aggressive or felt threatened (which will also cause aggressive behavior), yet his warnings were ignored & they wanted to adopt him right away!

If these people don't recognize the most basic communications, they aren't equipped to be pet owners. Chances are, this dog's behavior is a direct result of some idiot just like these two having mistreated him his entire life.

And turning your back on a stray dog & a small child is about the most irresponsible act an adult can make, second only to bringing the two together in the first place. What happened to the child is awful & I hope with all my heart that she's able to recover fully, both physically & mentally from this attack. But the people responsible for her trauma are the adults that accompanied her that day, not the shelter.

Her father should be suing her mother & the boyfriend, not the Humane Society of Cambria County. Why victimize a non-profit community service organization & allow the truly guilty parties absolution? This situation is a result of parental negligence (or just plain old stupidity).

Shelters are always in need of resources; many are run almost totally from donations & volunteer efforts. Taking their money is a lose-lose situation for the entire community: Already strapped funding will be further depleted so countless animals in need will go without help, employees could lose their jobs or the shelter could be forced to close.

If the shelter closes, neighbors may be more inclined to buy than adopt, creating a larger burden on other shelters in the area. Or the area could may become overrun with abandoned animals, if there's no place to take them. In those situations, some people always take to "euthanizing" unwanted pets in inhumane ways. If they've raised an animal unsuitable for domestic living & have no shelter to dump it on, people will generally shoot a dog or abandon it to starve to death, get run over, etc.

What's also very disturbing about this story is that the girl's father hopes his lawsuit will force shelters in general to "improve" screening procedures? Screening for what? Are they supposed to give each person that walks in a mental competency test to determine whether or not that person is responsible enough to be a dog owner?

How is the shelter in any position to tell a person they are an irresponsible parent? Shelters exist because irresponsible, ignorant people make stupid decisions when choosing a pet.

In essence, shelters exist solely because people like her make stupid choices & then refuse to accept responsibility for their actions. So someone has to step up & be responsible for the animals & the safety of the community. Shelters of all types may begin to turn away strays, large breeds, animals with unknown backgrounds or even volunteers for fear of liability claims such as this one.

They perform an invaluable public service to both people & animals. The employees & volunteers do it at great personal risk & sacrifice a lot to make the world a better place for all of us. It should be criminal for any person devoid of good judgment to walk into a shelter, expose their own child to harm & then try to hold the shelter responsible for the damages.

These organizations always need your help, so please remember to donate time, money or goods as frequently as you can. Most shelters post wish-lists on their websites so that you know exactly what to donate. If you're interested in making a goods donation please contact me. Mr. Steph & I try to take periodic carloads of goods to Action for Animals in Latrobe, where we got Rocco.

Without animal shelters, we would all suffer in ways we don't even realize. Even if you're not an animal lover, imagine how your community would suffer without them as a public health issue: Animals would be abandoned in the streets, communities would be overrun by strays for lack of cheap spaying & neutering. There'd be danger to everyone for lack of free & reduced-cost animal vaccinations, obedience classes & similar programs. Please realize that they benefit everyone & need help from all of us, all of the time.

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