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Hilltown Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 18, 2010
By Zach Simeone
BERNE Wendall Smith had two dogs, until one died and was eaten by the other.
Smith was arrested this week for neglecting his pair of German shorthaired pointers. Neighbors found the remains of the partially eaten dog last Saturday, but they had been aware for months that the dogs were being mistreated, they said.
“He hadn’t been home since probably Thursday,” said Lee Crosier, Smith’s next-door neighbor on Pine Knoll Lane in the hamlet of East Berne. “We went back and looked, and we saw that the carcass was in one spot, and the dog’s head was in the other,” she told The Enterprise.
It was about 1 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13. Crosier and her friend, Maureen Shea, had gone out for a walk. They knew Smith wasn’t home, and decided to check on the dogs.
“The water container was frozen solid,” Shea said, describing the scene. “There was a carcass laying in front of the doghouse, and I thought it was maybe a roast or another animal carcass that he had thrown in there for the dogs to eat. And then we saw the other dog’s head, and the living dog was emaciated, and we realized that he had never fed them…It was the most horrible thing I think I’ve ever seen.”
Smith, 24, of 14 Pine Knoll Lane was arrested on Tuesday, Feb. 16, by the Albany County Sheriff’s Department.
Smith has been charged with two counts each of aggravated cruelty to animals under Buster’s Law, a Class E felony; failure to provide sustenance, a Class A misdemeanor; and failure to provide appropriate shelter, a violation.
Smith was arraigned at the New Scotland Town Court by Judge David Wukitsch, and was remanded to the Albany County jail, with bail set at $5,000. Smith could not be reached for comment. The sheriff’s department held a press conference Wednesday morning to announce the arrest.
Crosier told The Enterprise on Tuesday that the sheriff’s department had been called several times about the dogs’ situation, but, according to Undersheriff Craig Apple, the sheriff department’s call records indicate that only one call was received specifically regarding the treatment of the dogs the one in the past week that led to Smith’s arrest. Other calls were from noise complaints, and an incident in September when one of Smith’s dogs got caught in its own leash.
Apple went on to say that, while Smith has been charged under Buster’s Law, it might be difficult to convict him in this case.
“Buster’s Law is designed for someone who is doing something depraved or sadistic to the animal, torturing the animal; this person basically neglected the animal,” Apple said. “But we did charge him with it.”
In 1997, an 18-month-old tabby cat named Buster had been doused with kerosene and burned to death by a Schenectady teen. This led to the state legislature’s passing Buster’s Law, which created the felony category of “aggravated cruelty to animals,” punishable by up to two years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Smith moved into the neighborhood with his girlfriend in August, Crosier said. Shortly after, there were two dogs living there, tied to a tree in the backyard. The dogs barked day and night, Crosier said, and she began getting phone calls from her neighbors, who thought that the dogs were on her property, being right next door to Smith’s.
“I had never met these kids, so I went over and told them there’s a problem with the dogs, and he apologized,” Crosier said of Smith.
Weeks later, the around-the-clock barking began again.
“The neighbor on the other side of the house would go over and put water in the bowls for them,” Crosier said of the dogs. Again, her neighbors started calling her, so she approached Smith’s residence once more.
“He said, ‘You’re exaggerating; and it’s Sunday and you’re bothering me.’ So, I left and I never talked to them again,” Crosier said. “Then, it got to be towards winter, and he had the dogs out back in a homemade cage. He made them a doghouse, but he never put any hay or anything to keep them warm.”
Neighbors began to notice that Smith did not come home on some nights, and the dogs were left outside without water, Crosier went on. On Jan. 9, Crosier called Cheryl Baitsholts, Berne’s dog control officer.
“She said she couldn’t do anything and that I should call the police, and that I have to have solid proof that the dogs are being neglected and not being taken care of; otherwise, they can’t do anything,” said Crosier. “I said, ‘Proof? The water bowls are frozen solid, and the food bowls are empty.’”
Baitsholts explained that the water could have been put out that morning and froze by the time Crosier had gotten to it. Further, Baitsholts said this week, there is an important distinction to be made, between being an animal control officer, and her title of dog control officer.
“Dog control officers aren’t allowed to investigate and prosecute cruelty,” Baitsholts explained. “An animal control officer is a different title all together; they can prosecute neglect and cruelty. An animal control officer has an education in neglect…They have peace-officer status; us dog control officers don’t. The state requires every town that issues licenses to have a dog control officer. With that title, you put up with a lot of crap, but you have no power,” she said.
Baitsholts is currently nursing the surviving dog back to health. But the first time Baitsholts helped one of Smith’s dogs was on Sept. 30.
“He called 9-1-1 because his dog was literally tied up in those plastic coated cables you buy to tie your dog outside,” Baitsholts said of Smith. “Somehow, the dog got all wound up in it overnight.” The cable was wound so tight around the dog that Baitsholts had to cut it off with bolt cutters.
“He carried the dog in the house and was all worried about it,” she said of Smith. “At least he seemed like he cared at the time.”
In a letter to the Enterprise editor this week, Crosier writes that the sheriff’s department was called by at least six neighbors regarding the treatment of the animals. But Undersheriff Apple told The Enterprise that the department’s call log shows only the call this week that led to his arrest, the 9-1-1 call in September when the dog was tied up, and series of calls relating to noise complaints.
“I ran the address,” said Apple, “we have been to that address one other time, and that was Sept. 30.”
Crosier asserts that the police once came to the neighborhood, went to the wrong house, and, once pointed to the correct house, did nothing about the situation.
Apple responded, “If there had been other calls, I find it hard to believe my guys would have just walked away.”
Further, Apple said, there does indeed need to be proof of neglect or abuse before an arrest can be made.
“Definitely, if a neighbor sees or suspects an animal being malnourished or abused, they should call the police,” Apple said. “If they don’t think the action taken was appropriate, they should contact the Humane Society, and there are animal rights organization that will trust me make sure the right action is taken. But some people’s opinions of malnourishment might not be the same as others, and some might be better trained in animal protection than others. A dog might be a show dog or racing dog that is supposed to be skinny.”
Fit for survival
Holly Cheever, a nationally known veterinarian and animal rights activist who practices at The Animal Hospital in Guilderland and lives in New Scotland, weighed in this week on different dogs’ abilities to survive outdoors, and on the laws surrounding animals’ living conditions.
“Unfortunately, the laws don’t always bring things into the humane category,” Cheever told The Enterprise. “If it’s sheltered and fed properly, a healthy dog could, hypothetically, stay there forever; whether or not it’s humane is an entirely different story. But no herd animal or social animal should be denied company.”
According to the New York State Agriculture and Markets Law, anyone who “deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, food or drink, or neglects or refuses to furnish it such sustenance or drink” is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.
Additionally, if a dog is left outside in “weather conditions that are likely to adversely affect the health or safety of the dog, including but not limited to rain, sleet, ice, snow, wind, or extreme heat and cold,” and is “without ready access to, or the ability to enter, a house, apartment building, office building, or any other permanent structure,” the owner or current caretaker of the dog may be fined between $50 and $100 dollars for the first offense, and between $100 and $250 for the second offense and subsequent offenses. Beginning 72 hours after a violation, each day the owner fails to correct these shelter deficiencies is a separate offense.
Dogs may, however, be left outdoors if given proper housing, which must include: a waterproof roof; insulation appropriate to local climatic conditions and sufficient to protect the dog from inclement weather; room for each dog to move and adjust its posture, stand up, turn around, and lie down with its limbs outstretched; enough room to allow for removal of excretions and other waste material, dirt, and trash; and the housing facility and surrounding area must be regularly cleaned to minimize health hazards.
“One thing we find is the punishment is not sufficient,” said Cheever.
An important factor of a dog’s survival in the cold is its type of coat, which varies between breeds.
“If it’s a malamute, it’s a large-bodied dog, it’s an arctic dog by breeding, by evolution, it’s going to have that double coat and it’s going to be able to withstand the rigors of the cold,” Cheever said.
One technique of maintaining warmth in some dogs is piloerection, “which means your fur stands up on end,” said Cheever.
“When they’re cold, they will puff out their coat in order to trap body heat,” she said, and some dogs have double coats. “So, if I’m a malamute, not only can I fluff up my fur, but I am also going to have a double coat. Collies and German shepherds also have double coats, and can stay outside with the right kind of shelter.”
But German shorthaired pointers have a thin coat, and are not capable of piloerection.
“It also depends on their feeding,” she went on. “Is this a tiny baby with no body fat? Is this an elderly, emaciated, arthritic dog without much body fat left? It has to be an animal that is going to be given extra calories, and needs access to drinkable not frozen water.”
Asked if, in her experience, she knew of cases where one dog ate another, she said it is atypical.
“Let’s say we have two dogs in an enclosure with a doghouse inside, and they’re pack mates,” said Cheever. “It is highly atypical for one pack member to eat another pack member, and it would be even more unlikely to have happened while both dogs were alive.” Where this is more common is in what she called a hoarder situation.
“A hoarder is basically a person who accumulates more animals than he or she can humanely and reasonably care for, and it’s recognized as a psychological disorder, a form of obsessive compulsion syndrome,” she said. “When you go into a hoarder situation where lots of animals are dying, it’s a frequent act of desperation in the animal trying to save itself from starvation that it will eat one of its housemates, and it would more likely be a deceased housemate.”
She went on to describe a situation in which a breeder was found to be a hoarder.
“One bitch was having puppies, and the other dogs were gobbling up the puppies as they came out,” said Cheever. “And hoarders tend to have a very intact public persona; very clean, very up straight, but, when you look at what they’re running, it’s essentially a death camp for animals.”
In terms of how situations of neglect and abuse can be avoided, Cheever had three words: “Education, education, education.”
“And the kind of education is to train people that dogs do not belong stuck on leashes in outdoor pens 24-7,” Cheever said. “If you’re going to get a dog and treat it that way, then why get a dog? It’s a social animal, and a pack animal, and therefore it needs a pack. You’ve got to train people to think of dogs as needing to be indoors, and you need to make sure the shelter is right.
“Too many drive by and see a dog stapled to the back-shed kind of thing and they don’t say anything. Depending on how people feel, if a dog seems like it’s in some sort of extremeness, maybe knock on the door or give a friendly note and say, ‘Listen, your dog looks like it might be cold,’ or let animal control know.”
She concluded, “If a dog is barking all night long, it’s suffering one way or another, whether it’s psychologically or physically.”