Here’s a little story that might literally be a shaggy dog story, if only it had some humorous little twist at the end. But, sadly, it doesn’t.
It’s the story of Peaches, and if you live in West Windsor or Plainsboro, you may have heard the story of this aging and sickly German Shepherd who may or may not have been treated poorly by his master. Peaches and his treatment, and the animal control officer’s procedures for investigating that treatment, have been front page stories recently in the biweekly community paper that I edit in my spare time, the West Windsor-Plainsboro News. As a petless person and — dare I say it? — a person who has always thought that animal rights, while important, should take a second place to people’s rights, I found the whole story somewhat entertaining, and then, in an odd way, instructive.
Our story begins at the end, after Peaches had been put to sleep and after Peaches’ owner, Princeton University professor and West Windsor resident Perry Link, had plea bargained a deal: Various charges against Link and his wife would be dropped; he in turn would plead guilty to using a doghouse that did not conform to SPCA specifications and he would sign an agreement promising not to own another pet for seven years.
At that point Link wrote a letter to the WW-P News, alleging that the township animal control officer used heavy handed tactics and that, after he wrote a letter of complaint to the mayor, the tactics grew even more heavy handed. Within two weeks of the letter, Link alleged, he received no fewer than eight summonses. He ended up spending more than $6,000 in legal fees. With more looming, he opted to settle.
The most chilling action by the authorities, in Link’s mind, was the knock on the door from an armed officer of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Link, as it turn out, knows something about the intrusions of government into the lives of its citizens. A professor of East Asian studies and Chinese literature at Princeton, Link co-edited “The Tiananmen Papers,” documenting the protests of 1989, and he has been banned from traveling in China since 1996.
His Chinese wife, Tong Yi, knows first hand the brutality of a totalitarian state. When the armed SPCA officer showed up at the door and served a summons on her, she was traumatized, says Link.
Hence the letter to the paper on January 5. If any West Windsor residents were sympathetic to Link’s view, they kept their silence. Those who responded were uniformly critical of Peaches’ owner — he must have caused the illness, his mistreatment of the dog must have exacerbated the illness, and his criticism of the animal control officer was a vicious attack on a person just doing her job.
But for me, at least, that’s when the story got instructive. What if Peaches had been not a dog but a child? What if the neighbors were concerned about how the parents were treating the poor tyke? Would a representative from the Division of Youth and Family Service ever knock on the door to investigate? And if DYFS ever did, would the representative be armed with a revolver — or with a clipboard? And in the unlikely event that a parent were ever cited for cruelty to their own child, would the parent be forbidden to have another child for seven years?
No way. In our society, your home is your castle and your kids are your serfs, who can be treated pretty much anyway you see fit.
A few days after the Peaches controversy hit the pages of the community newspaper, the story broke about the Missouri boy recovered by police four years after he had been kidnapped from his home. The boy, Shawn Hornbeck, was abducted at the age of 11 and allegedly (or obviously) became first a physical and then a psychological captive of his captor. Neighbors saw him playing idly around the apartment of Michael Devlin, 41, during hours any other kid would have been in school. No one called anyone in authority.
The upstairs neighbor was quoted in Newsweek describing the 18 months he lived above Devlin and the young boy: The neighbor “heard all manner of disconcerting sounds, including whimpering, pleading, and screaming. On one occasion, he says, ‘it was like Shawn was trying to get [Devlin] to stop doing something’.” No one called anyone about poor little Shawn.
If it had been West Windsor instead of suburban St. Louis, and — more importantly — if Shawn had been Peaches, things might have gone differently. The armed officer arriving at the door might have had a reason to brandish that weapon.
I don’t know how officers of the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals acquired the status of “peace officers” and gained the right to carry weapons on the job. But I do know that the ASPCA has had a leg up on its children’s counterparts for a long time. The first SPCA in New York was founded in 1866; the SPCC was founded eight years later. Today you can google the phrase “prevention of cruelty to children” and get 250,000 hits. Google “prevention of cruelty to animals” and you get 875,000.
No, this is not a shaggy dog story. But it is a sorry story about dogs — and people.