Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dead Dog Blues

originally published in the Hartford Advocate November 22, 2007

Dead Dog Blues
Alan Weisenberg's old pet Chihuahua was confiscated by Animal Control, and later died. He is now being charged with cruelty to animals for letting it live so long.

By Jennifer Abel

Picture a female named Bambi, age 18 or 19 years old. But before investing too much energy in the wrong image, you should know that Bambi is a dog. A Chihuahua, in fact, equivalent to a centenarian in human terms.

So the fact that she died last month really isn't any surprise, but the fact that her owner's facing jail time maybe is.

It's an odd tale. On one side there's Alan Weisenberg, a 58-year-old West Hartford man who is by most accounts a responsible dog owner. Then there's Karen Jones, a town Animal Control officer who is by most accounts a responsible dog warden.

Until Sept. 17, the day Weisenberg says she threatened to arrest him on animal cruelty charges if he didn't have Bambi euthanized.

The dog died in her sleep on Oct. 5, and two weeks later Weisenberg went to the police to turn himself in after learning of an Oct. 16 arrest warrant in his name. Now he's waiting for his Dec. 11 court date, where he faces up to a year in jail.

"[Jones] said, 'when dogs get old ... we should put them down.'" Weisenberg recalled in an interview with the Advocate. "I said, 'Who are you to tell me to put my dog down? If she's dying, she can die at home with her family."

By all accounts the dog was in poor health. "[Bambi's] left leg had arthritis," Weisenberg said. "I used to carry her outside, she liked the warm weather ... I guess it made her arthritis feel better."

Weisenberg knew his old dog didn't have long to live. "I've had her since she was a pup ... I didn't want to put her down. If she was showing she was in pain, crying or something, then I would've said 'All right.' But she didn't."

The incident happened on a warm day on Sept. 17. Usually, when Weisenberg went to work he brought his two large mongrel dogs with him and left Bambi in the house. But that was a particularly nice day, and Bambi wanted to stay outside. And so: "Never done this before, but I had a cord about 15 feet long, and tied her to a tree outside while I went to work for five or six hours. Someone — they never said who — called [town officials] to say they thought the dog was dead."

An elderly, arthritic dog sprawled on a sunny sidewalk might well be mistaken for a dead one.

So far this sounds, at most, like a routine misunderstanding. Weisenberg didn't know Bambi had become a law-enforcement issue until he left work, "got home, and saw a cop and the dog warden."

Bambi was already in the Animal Control truck when he got home, Weisenberg said, so he couldn't simply carry her back inside. Weisenberg says Jones wanted the dog euthanized almost from the start. "She said if you let me put the dog down, I won't charge you with anything."

Weisenberg's roommate Rick Bouchard said he was there and confirms Weisenberg's account of the conversation between the dog owner and the animal control official. "She was threatening to arrest [Weisenberg] and fine him if he didn't release the dog to her," he said.

Weisenberg refused. Animal Control took Bambi to Avon's Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital, where she stayed for 10 days until Weisenberg's attorney Fred Boland sent police a letter demanding the dog's return.

On Sept. 27 another animal control officer took Bambi to Newington's Fox Clinic, a low-cost facility run by the Humane Society. After being checked by a vet, the dog was released back into Weisenberg's custody.

"She was always thin," Weisenberg said, "but they gave me back a skeleton ... they put her in a kennel somewhere where she was scared to death, probably a cubicle with a hard cement floor ... she was so happy to see me."

Bambi died in her sleep Oct. 5. Weisenberg mourned his dog and figured the matter over. But police were preparing an arrest warrant, completed and dated Oct. 16. Bouchard was the first to learn of its existence.

"I was emptying the garbage about nine, 9:30 at night, and then four cops with flashlights came up — I think it was three police and the animal investigator there — they asked me if I was Alan. I told them no ... I imagine they knew I wasn't Alan; they did not ask for ID." Weisenberg turned himself in the next day.

This is the part of the story where police are supposed to give their version of events. But with Weisenberg's court appearance pending, neither Officer Jones nor Chief of Police James Strilacci can speak to the press. They did return our calls long enough to say they couldn't say anything, and Jones added "I'd be more than happy to help you out after the case is taken care of ... and help you write a good story."

Their version of events can be found in the arrest warrant affidavit, which Boland gave us as soon as he got a copy (two days after we first spoke to Weisenberg). It describes a dog suffering not from old age, but neglectful ownership.

Weisenberg and Boland both say events were twisted just out of focus of the truth.

For one example, the warrant says that Jones felt the dog needed emergency care, but "Weisenberg insisted the dog was fine, just old and that he did not have the funding to pay for her care and might soon be losing his used car business."

Boland and Weisenberg's version of the encounter is that Weisenberg wanted to take Bambi to his own vet rather than the one recommended by Jones because "business has been slow and the Fox Clinic is cheaper."

Parts of the affidavit read a bit ambiguously: one section notes that Bambi was tied to the tree by a 20 foot rope, and later says ,"A bowl of water was visible but at least 15 feet away from where the dog lay collapsed," implying that it was out of Bambi's reach. The report also says the dog lacked shelter.

It's true there's no doghouse in Weisenberg's front yard, but there is a crabapple tree whose sprawling branches provide shade (at least in September; by late November the tree's a largely leafless skeleton). A 15- or 20-foot rope tied to the trunk would be just long enough to let the dog escape the shade and sun herself at sidewalk's edge.

The police report says the Farmington Valley Veterinary Hospital recommended euthanizing Bambi when she arrived on Sept. 17.

But a "to whom it may concern" letter from the Fox Clinic, dated Oct. 31 and referencing the Sept. 27 visit, made no such suggestion; it says Bambi showed no signs of physical abuse or cruelty, but that Weisenberg was advised to "eliminate outside tethering for extended periods of time because of age and health issues." So keeping Bambi outside on Sept. 17 was probably a bad idea (though whether it rises to the level of criminal animal cruelty is another matter).

The state Animal Control Division is a branch of the Department of Agriculture. We called to ask under what circumstances a dog owner could be legally compelled to put his pet down, and were surprised to learn the answer is "none." If a dog is violent the state can confiscate and destroy it, but the owner's not obliged to do so. Therefore, if Jones tried forcing Weisenberg to euthanize the dog, she far overstepped her authority as an Animal Control officer.

But the man who answered the phone at Animal Control seemed very surprised to hear who we were talking about. "That sounds out of character for [Jones]," he said.