It’s never a good idea to weigh in on a contentious issue without knowing all the facts, and I may come to regret doing exactly that as I write about the on-going saga of “Piper,” the Shetland Sheepdog.
But first, I want to tell you about Justina Pelletier.
Justina had been undergoing treatment at Tufts Medical Center for mitochondrial disease when her mother rushed her to Boston Children’s Hospital the day before Valentine’s Day in 2013 and told doctors that her daughter was suffering from severe symptoms of the disease.
The medical team at Children’s disagreed.
They determined that the teenager suffered from Somatoform Disorder (symptoms are real but there’s no underlying physical cause), and that Justina’s parents were blocking the psychiatric care they believed the girl needed.
Alarmed at the dramatic change in their daughter’s course of treatment without the involvement of her doctor at Tufts, Justina’s parents complained. They wanted to discharge Justina and take her to Tufts, but instead of involving the Tufts doctor, Children’s hospital reported its suspicions of medical child abuse to the state. The next day, the state’s child protection agency took emergency custody of Justina, a decision validated by the juvenile court judge.
Justina Pelletier spent the next 16 months and two birthdays away from her family and in state custody as a battle ensued over parental rights and the controversial new field of medical child abuse. The next 16 months were every parent’s worst legal nightmare.
This past June, the same Massachusetts juvenile court judge who originally removed Justina from her parents’ care dismissed the child-protection case against them. As psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Ablow, wrote of the judgement: “His ruling ended a 15-month odyssey that I believe showed that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and Boston Children’s Hospital were willing to disregard the rights of her parents and, in essence legally “kidnap” her. “
Hardly a singular case, the battle over Justina’s future was one of a handful of cases involving a disputed diagnosis and parents losing custody of their own children by “professionals” who thought they knew better.
I think there are parallels to the ongoing situation with “Piper,” the Sheltie. If “perception is reality,” then there’s a point a view to be had about Piper’s situation which makes the necessity of having the facts feel almost incidental. In a court of law, facts are anything but incidental and count for a great deal, but in the court of public opinion, an odor is wafting from this mess, and some people are smelling a rat.
I have no special insights into Piper’s situation, nor do I know any of the “players.” Like most people following this story, my opinion is pieced together from news updates, Facebook postings, and anecdotal accounts. As far as I know, the series of events that started this saga went like this:
- Back in April, a Sheltie named “Piper” was entrusted to the care of one of her co-owners while the other (the one with whom Piper lived whom I’ll call “the owner”) attended the breed’s National Specialty;
- While her owner was out of town, the father of the co-owner with whom Piper was staying suffered a heart attack. As the family dealt with a seriously sick family member, Piper and two other dogs escaped out of the co-owner’s fenced yard;
- Piper was picked up by local Animal Control which found that she had been microchipped (some reports indicate that the chip hadn’t yet been registered); Animal Control called the veterinarian who had inserted the chip, but the phone call went unanswered because it was Easter weekend. Instead of waiting to hear from the veterinarian after the holidays, Animal Control turned Piper over to a Sheltie rescue group;
- When Piper’s owner returned from her National Specialty, she learned of Piper’s escape and contacted the rescue group.
This is where things fell apart.
Piper’s owner was also her breeder. Despite having been provided documentation about Piper’s ownership that included pedigrees, AKC papers, show photographs, vaccination records and the offer of DNA testing, the director of the rescue group refused to return Piper alleging that Piper’s owner was “not the rightful owner.”
The National Breed Club’s Rescue intervened, but failed to resolve the situation.
Things descended from there.
Accusations of break-ins, threats, intimidation and Internet bullying were leveled by the rescue group’s director. Piper’s owner got an attorney who filed a Complaint for Replevin and Conversion in July, 2014, but she had to launch an Internet fund-raising campaign for legal fees. The attorney for the rescue group, meanwhile, is said to be working pro bono.
Last week, a Franklin County judge ordered that “Piper” be returned to her owner while the case works its way through the court. In response, the rescue group’s director posted a $10,000 bond to keep the dog until the dispute is resolved. A court date has not yet been determined.
Needless to say, comments to articles about this case and in social media have been heated. I noticed with interest the post of one anonymous author who alleged that Piper’s own breeder had rehomed her to complete strangers before she left for the National Specialty. The anxious dog got away from the new owners who didn’t notify the breeder until days later. The breeder, the anonymous writer continued, concocted the story about leaving Piper with her co-owner.
To which I think to myself, even if true, so what?
Does it matter from whom Piper escaped? The rescue organization’s failure to return Piper to her breeder on the grounds that she couldn’t prove ownership is one thing. Not placing her with an experienced Sheltie owner who happens to be the dog’s breeder and wants the dog is still a curious response from a group dedicated to finding every dog a good home. The group states on its own web site, “…congratulations to our four footed ones who needed us to find them their perfect, safe, forever home. Our dogs will always have the best homes, the best care, and the best of everything! After all…..It’s All About the Dogs!”
Is it? Is it all about the dogs? Was it about Piper?
A rescue group’s mandate, if only by virtue of its name, is to “rescue” dogs and place them in the best possible home. In this story, the director of a rescue group is refusing to return Piper to the only home she’s ever known, and if she was rehomed by the breeder, why wouldn’t the rescue group give her to the breeder who could at least get her back to her new owners? What possible reason could there be for not returning Piper to her breeder either way?
My hunch about what’s really going on here is rooted in my observation of an increasingly militant tone of some in the rescue movement in their condemnation of breeders, all breeders. These particular people make no distinction between ethical legacy breeders and substandard ones because in their minds, they’re all equally evil.
It looks (to me, anyway) that the director of the rescue group took it upon herself to act as judge and jury by determining that the home of a breeder couldn’t possibly be a suitable home for a dog. “Piper” wasn’t spayed at the time of her escape (a decision that rightfully belonged to her owner who decided that Piper would be healthier by keeping her intact), and my guess is that the director of the rescue group equated unspayed as unloved. If I were to channel my nine year old self, I would say that in the mind of this rescue group director, someone died and made her God.
There are many fine rescue groups across the country doing it right, and it would be a mistake to lump rescues together as has been done to breeders. I’m suspicious that what we’re seeing in the Piper case, however, is a new tactic in the zealous “adopt-don’t-shop” movement, a “feel-and-steal” response to laws with which they don’t agree. As a state/regional rescue coordinator for a national breed club told me, it’s nothing short of “theft by rescue.”
Then, too, there’s the money. Let’s not forget the $10,000 bond posted by the director of the rescue group. How many unfortunate dogs do you suppose $10,000 could have helped? Where do you suppose the money came from? Did it come from duped, good hearted donors? Or did it come from like-minded zealots championing the “stand” the director of this rescue group has taken against breeders.
I wouldn’t be the first to point out the massive fundraisers held by “non-profits,” or cite rescue web sites pleading for financial support even as they turn a profit from dogs imported from abroad and “adopted” out. It’s hardly surprising that rescue groups would do this, I suppose, when they need only look at the Humane Society of the United States as their “business model.” The HSUS rakes in millions every year but spends less than 1% on actually helping pets.
Could money be more relevant in this discussion than we might guess? In researching this story, I was told of several troubling experiences by ethical rescue volunteers who witnessed disturbing things. One foster “parent” told me about a rescue group that spent thousands of dollars in cancer treatment for a dog estimated to be at least 15 years old. The dog’s own veterinarian stated it was better to keep the dog comfortable rather than subject him to additional painful treatments in his last days. Instead, the rescue group pulled the dog from his foster home after learning that the foster “parent” agreed with the vet and refused more treatment for the grizzled old senior. The dog died within weeks of undergoing painful treatment at a different clinic.
Just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Were these painful treatments really in the best interest of the dog?
Not long after the old dog died, the same rescue claimed it needed several thousand more dollars to treat a young dog that had come in with a badly broken leg. The money spent on the old dog with cancer was more than what this dog would have needed to repair his leg.
Who makes such poor decisions? If donors knew of such poor decision-making and money mismanagement, would they still donate? Has the time come for more scrutiny and less blanket trust of rescue operations? Isn’t it appropriate to have more oversight of non-profit groups that have grown to have too much power with too little accountability? Wouldn’t it be nice if Lois Lerner, head of the IRS, started with the Humane Society of the United States?
I’ve been saying for quite some time that the dog fancy has been the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and as we go, so goes society. If the rights of law abiding dog owners and breeders can be eroded, it won’t be that hard to target someone else.
Earlier in this article, I quoted Dr. Keith Ablow in his assessment of the Justina Pelletier case, and I end my article by paraphrasing his quote. It’s chilling to me how changing just a few words keeps the meaning intact and portends an ominous trend: