Good dialogue makes good neighbors

We were saddened last week when we received a letter from a grief-stricken woman whose dog had been shot. She wrote about her pet collie, Sophie, as if Sophie were a person.

Any of us who have loved a pet can empathize with her sorrow. Pets feel like family members. And to have the death occur so violently makes it harder to accept.

Barbara Huba refused to use the word “neighbor” to describe the man who had shot her dog. “Neighbors take care of each other,” she wrote.

She went on, “Sophie’s killer isn’t a neighbor...He is a mere transplant who doesn’t truly understand life in the country...Random killing isn’t what life in the country is about. Many of us live in the country to get away from exactly that type of person.”

We decided to print her letter along with a news article to tell the whole story, which showed the killing wasn’t random. When our reporter called the man who had shot the collie, Michele Salerno, he was angry and upset. He felt under attack by people who had been made aware of the shooting through social media.

He threatened to sue our paper if we ran a story. We believe true communication — honest telling and empathetic listening — can often solve problems better than bringing a matter to court.

When we talked to Salerno in person, he told us about the wide variety of birds he raises on his 51 acres. He has Aracuna chickens that lay colored eggs — green and pink and blue. (We found this hard to believe until we saw them with our own eyes; they looked like the eggs children dye at Easter time.) He has ring-necked pheasants, with golden feathers and red faces, and Bronze turkeys — their plumage has an iridescent sheen. All of these birds have been killed by uncontrolled dogs.

Salerno works as a general contractor and derives both income and pleasure from his birds. He regards many of them as pets and speaks about them with great passion. Since he moved here six years ago, dogs have frequently attacked his birds. He has pictures of dozens and dozens of dead birds, many of them savagely ravaged.

Salerno has tried using the law to protect his birds, to little avail. Representing himself in court, he added up the losses, figuring, for example, the 240 eggs per year a chicken produces — his are free range — and calculated the loss at $9,000. When he sued to recover $3,000, the judge cracked a joke, asking if he had the chicken that laid a golden egg, and awarded him just $100.

Salerno described some of the pets he has lost to dog attacks. He had a crested duck he named George, after Washington. “He’s got like a toupee and Washington had a wig,” said Salerno. “He used to follow me around and come into the house.”

Six of the 11 ducks Salerno got in November have been killed by dogs. He used to have a pair of barred rock chickens, speckled black and white, named Fricassee and Franchez. “They hatched at the same time and went together everywhere,” said Salerno. Fricassee was killed by a dog.

The beloved pet parrot of his fiancée’s daughter was also killed when they let the parrot, named Oscar, into the pheasant cage for a few hours to get some sun on Nov. 11 as the temperature reached into the 60s. She had had the parrot for three years and was devoted to it; her macaw was raised in Florida and liked the sunshine, Salerno said. Both a collie and an Australian shepherd were on Salerno’s property that day — he has a picture of the Aussie with feathers in its mouth.

“Oscar was in a cage with my pheasants so it had company. He ran underneath,” Salerno surmised of the dog. “There were feathers all around...Oscar must have hit its head or had a heart attack.” The parrot was worth over $3,000 but its value was far more than monetary.

Without ever having read Huba’s letter, Salerno said to us, “I have a good neighbor.”

The first time Salerno caught this neighbor’s dog attacking his birds, he could identify the dog’s owner, since, unlike Huba’s collie, it had a license. “I took that gentlemen into my home. I shared with him how I raise my chickens,” said Salerno.

Salerno detailed the process he goes through, hatching his birds from eggs, keeping them in the incubator for 21 days, then moving them to a brooder for two weeks before putting them in a small cage for four weeks while they feather out, and finally placing them in a free-range coop for life.

“We shared a bottle of my homemade wine. He promised his dog would never be on my property. And to this day, he hasn’t. That is a good neighbor.”

Being a good neighbor is the heart of this matter as with so many others. The Judeo-Christian tenet  — Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself — is found in most religions as an organizing principle of society.

Huba sought to have Salerno punished under the law, but found no recourse and would like to lobby for a Sophie’s Law to protect pets. Salerno has called town officers and been to court to try to protect his pets and property, mostly to no avail.

Certainly, the laws we’ve adopted as a society should be followed. In this case, dogs should be licensed so they can be identified and owners can be called if their dogs are doing things they shouldn’t. And, in the towns of Guilderland and New Scotland, the law requires that dogs be under their owners’ control.

The state’s Agricultural and Markets Law allowed Salerno to kill the collie; it authorizes an owner to shoot if a dog attacks or threatens a person or if it attacks a companion animal, farm animal, or domestic animal. “I had no recourse,” Salerno told us. “The duck was in its mouth.” He called police after the shooting, and they found no wrongdoing.

But the shooting saddened Salerno. He didn’t want to harm his neighbor by killing her dog. He said he felt sad to kill the dog and even sadder when, much later, he learned the collie had belonged to his neighbor.

“I love animals,” he said. “I need to protect my animals, my pets. I’m truly sorry. There was no collar, no tags, nothing.” He said, if he had known the dog was Huba’s, he would have given her a chance to get the collie off of his property.

The solution, as our courts are clogged with many suits that could easily be avoided, is for neighbors to understand each other.

This means not vilifying someone but, rather, trying to genuinely understand who he is.

Salerno took exception to Huba’s printed words declaring him to be “a mere transplant” who doesn’t understand country living. “I was born on a farm in Italy,” he said; the livestock provided sustenance. He was raised in a home in Avellino, on a working farm, without electricity, where beds were warmed with heated bricks at night, and his mother cooked meals over an open fire. “That is real country living,” he said.

Salerno showed us his duck, its neck mangled and bloody, its body frozen. We imagined, too, how hard it must have been for Huba to see her dead dog.

“We will try to change the law,” said Huba. “We will and we’ll save some other pets from being shot, and maybe a kid.”

Rather than looking outward to the law, we believe the solution lies in looking inward, to be a good neighbor. If dog owners do what Salerno’s good neighbor did, and keep their pets safely fenced, or on a leash, Salerno’s pets will be safe, too.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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