By Charles Montgomery
("Ruth" in this
story was actually Lillian Couture and you can read about Lillian at
"Ruth" HAS DIME-SIZED bruises on her arm where a friend's German
shepherd pawed her minutes before we met. She is alarmingly thin.
When she walks, she seems to sway. Fragile. Not the kind of woman
you would expect to leap a neighbour's fence in the dead of night
and run off with his border collie. But Leap she did.
Ruth rubs her bruises, takes
a swig from a bottle of black-cherry root beer, and remembers the
day she first heard Barbie's imploring whine from behind the planks.
"I peeked through to see her fur matted and excrement all around,"
says Ruth, who prefers not to use her real name. "I found a gap in
the fence and put my arms around her. She wagged from end to end."
Every night for two years
Ruth reached in to hug the dog and be licked in return. She never
saw Barbie off her six-foot chain. Ruth says the owner, "a rough,
rough man" who never paid attention to Barbie except to yell at her,
admitted he never walked the dog. As the months went by, Ruth
noticed Barbie's spirits fading. One January night she arrived to
find Barbie's water frozen solid. "It broke my heart. She put her
head on my shoulder and I started to cry. I thought, 'Dear God, what
am I going to do?'"
Dognapping has been on a lot
of people's minds this year, especially since a pair of shepherd-lab
crosses disappeared from their pen in the Coquitlam yard of Karen
and James Mansell last February. Media coverage gave the impression
that the disappearance was the doing of radical network of urban
VTV reporter Lisa Rossington got the ball rolling, showing up at the
Mansell home with a video tape featuring Judy Stone, the outspoken
founder of the Animal Advocates Society of B.C. James Mansell
recognized Stone as the woman who had been taking pictures of his
dogs a week before they disappeared.
Soon after, Mansell was outside Stone's West Vancouver home,
hollering for his hounds. They weren't there. But days later, Animal
Advocates member Barry Faires returned the dogs to Mansell at Cates
Park, and RCMP officers swooped in to arrest him. Faires eventually
admitted to possession of stolen property, but not to theft of the
dogs. Nobody has confessed to that.
Coverage on VTV and in the Province spun the issue as a case
of animal liberationists terrorizing pet owners by night. Mansell
told reporters that losing his dogs was like losing family members
to terrorists. "It's horrendous," Mansell told the Province.
"They are leaving devastated families in their wake. My kids are
The media frothed. National Post columnist Norman Doige took
the occasion to decry the mainstreaming of "wacky animal activism."
They made little of the fact that Mansell's neighbours had
repeatedly complained to the local Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals about his treatment of the dogs, saying they were
poorly fed and often left chained amid their own feces.
Now the dogs are back in their pen, Faires is facing a sentence of
community work, and the media have moved on-having entirely
overlooked that the incident signalled a major change in local
attitudes towards pets.
This summer I went searching
for the mastermind behind Vancouver's dognapping scene. I didnít
find one. Dogs are stolen from yards all across the Lower Mainland,
and the culprits are rarely organized activists. Nor are they drug
addicts, flipping pooches for a quick cash.
It's tempting to dismiss the
thieves as "a bunch of West Coast wackos," a phrase one confessor
used to describe how her ilk have been characterized. But I
discovered that the people who take dogs are mostly regular folk,
driven to late-night acts of desperation by the sight of abused
animals in their neighbourhoods and a perceived lack of action by
Though they get
encouragement from pet-industry professionals such as vets and
animal behaviourists, and have the sympathy-if not the endorsement
- of some SPCA officials, dognappers are fully aware that they are
breaking the law, and it terrifies them. They encounter each other
on park lawns and forest trails. They shuffle through back alleys
with pockets full of treats for chained pets, and trade stories on
the Internet or while walking their own dogs. They spirit "rescued"
dogs off to distant foster homes. They are people like Ruth. They
are your neighbours.
Dogs are indeed
disappearing, says Brian Nelson, director of field operations for
the Greater Vancouver SPCA. "Every day I get dozens, if not
hundreds, of calls from people whose dogs have gone missing."
Thereís no way to judge how many of those have been stolen, but the
threat is real enough that the SPCA officers use it to scare owners
into taking better care of their animals. Officers investigating
abuse complaints warn pet owners to change their ways or pets may be
stolen," Nelson says. "And sometimes those pets do disappear."
The thieves are eager to
talk, especially if it means a chance to take shots at Nelson and
the SPCA. That's because there is a common theme to most dognappers'
stories: they have called the SPCA to report pet abuse or neglect
and have been told that the organization can't do anything if owners
are providing adequate food, water and shelter.
The Prevention of Cruelty to
Animals (PCA) Act gives the SPCA the power to relieve animals in
distress-that is, animals that are deprived of adequate food, water
or shelter; injured, sick, in pain or suffering; or abused or
neglected. Those who jump fences to take dogs feel that the SPCA
simply doesn't interpret the Act broadly enough, and that they
themselves are therefore a dog's last hope.
Take Laura Shelley Tailleur,
a fast-talking Langley hairdresser who keeps a box full of "rescue"
supplies-rubber gloves, blankets, choke-chains, dog bisquits-in the
trunk of her car, in case she sees an animal in distress. (In
allowing her real name to be used, Tailleur is braver than most
'nappers, who say they remain anonymous not for their own protection
but out of fear that the dogs they've rescued could be tracked down
and returned.) "If your dog is skinny with no food or water and the
SPCA isn't going to do anything about it, then your dog is gonna to
go missing, okay? Because I can't stand to see it."
Tailleur has taken at least
six unhappy dogs in the past few years. Once, after she rescued a
Samoyed with bleeding choke-chain wounds, she squared off against
the investigating SPCA officer. "I told him, 'Erase your records.
I'm keeping this dog.' He left and I never heard from him
a 52-year old Surrey house-wife, tells me she has taken two dogs in
the past year. Both had been left chained in their respective
owners' backyards without water. "Joanne," a soft-spoken 45-year-old
clerk from Burnaby, says she and other neighbours begged the SPCA to
rescue a pup she says was left alone for nearly three years on a
10-foot run line. She finally crept away with the dog at 2 a.m.
Then thereís "Audrey," a
June Cleaver-like retiree from Langley who says she has been
rescuing dogs on her own for 50 years. Audrey hit her peak a few
years ago in Prince George, after she noticed one neighbour's dog
had vanished. "Their kid came over and I said, 'What happened to
Cookie?' and she said, 'Oh , we left her in the car and she cooked.'
Now isn't that nice? After that we stole as many of their dogs as we
Almost all 'nappers are
women. Many, though perhaps not the majority, are involved in the
pet industry in some way: some are SPCA volunteers, and others are
veterinarians, dog-groomers, or pet store workers. When they call to
share their stories, their voices break with emotion. Some stop the
conversation to inquire cautiously, "You are a dog lover, aren't
There's no middle ground
here. And the SPCA, according to hardline activists, falls on the
wrong side of the fence. Animal Advocates' Judy Stone charges that
the Vancouver SPCA ignores abused and neglected animals in favour of
focussing on its 18 Lower Mainland pound contracts.
of women a year take the law into their own hands, risking life and
limb, taking an incredible risk, all because they can't get the
agency responsible to give a damn," says Stone, who describes these
activities as rescuing rather than stealing. "The SPCA doesnít
interpret the [PCA] Act the way the public wants because that would
be too expensive. They say they can't enforce the law-well, they
Recently, Stone has been
documenting those cases of alleged abuse, prowling around back
alleys with a battered Canon camera or a Sony video recorder. Her
basement is a maelstrom of rescued mongrels (I counted six) and
files overflowing with photos and descriptions of miserable-looking
The SPCA's Brian Nelson, a
frequent target of Stone's wrath, insists that the society does try
to but is stymied by the legal interpretation of abuse and neglect.
As much as SPCA officers agree with the humane concerns of the dognappers, they are representing the law when they investigate.
is against the law not to provide adequate food, shelter and water.
It's not against the law not to love your dog."
Besides, Nelson says, if the
society took every negligent pet owner to court, the justice system
would be swamped. He says that last year in the Lower Mainland, the
SPCA responded to 3,296 complaints of neglect, seized 58 animals and
took seven owners to court for abuse. (In many cases the accused
choose to do community-service hours in lieu of being prosecuted.)
Legal action isn't easy:
just to obtain a search warrant, Nelson needs solid evidence that an
animal is in distress, and before that he must give pet owners a
chance to relieve their animals' suffering. A provincial court judge
dismissed a case against the owner of a herd of emaciated horses in
Langley this summer, ruling that the SPCAís search warrant was
illegal. Nelson hadnít given the owner the chance to fatten up her
horses before he rescued them.
the one who ends up going to trial on these cases," says Nelson.
"And when we lay a charge, we typically wonít see the accused at
trial for the better part of a year." So the SPCA picks its battles
carefully. It is likely to rescue a dog they can prove is beaten or
starved. But the dogs that live in the grey zone of abuse, dogs that
are chained, caged, infrequently fed and watered, dogs that aren't
shown love, are not covered. They are the animals most often stolen.
Their rescuers, meanwhile,
inhabit the ethical gulf between neighbourly concern and late-night
vigilantism. British Columbia SPCA director of community relations
Stephan Huddart, for one, feels that their fervour isnít appropriate
in a multicultural society with disparate opinions on pet care.
"Judy Stone's idea of a league of upper-middle-class ladies out
there stealing dogs in the middle of the night is quite hilarious,"
he says. "There's a kind of mean-spirited quality to this work.
People are doing it in the dark, there is a call to judgment."
He agrees that, in
principle, animals shouldn't be condemned to live at the end of a
four-foot chain. "But should that immoral act be constrained by the
law? It's possible that we get a little carried away with concern
with dogs and cats when there are so many other issues that have to
be dealt with. But this does point to a deeper issue. Community
standards around animal care seem to be changing. People are
responding [to neglect] with upset and concern that we didn't see
five or 10 years ago."
It's not just a Lotus Land
phenomenon. The town council of the northern Italian village of Recanati this year enacted a social contract between humans and
their pets which, among other things, guarantees pets the right to
enjoy social rapport with members of their own species. According to
the fine print, that includes the fulfilment of pets' "legitimate
None of the local pet
advocates is demanding healthy sex lives for our dogs (yet), but
Vancouver canine behaviourist Gary Gibson says society is starting
to realize that dogs have psychological needs. "When you start
messing with a dog's mind and not giving it the things it needs on a
day-to-day basis, you are abusing that dog. And those needs are much
greater than food, water and shelter." In particular, Gibson says,
dogs need to feel part of a pack, even if that pack is human. Gibson
admits to stealing a couple of abused dogs himself. "But itís
usually the neighbours who do it."
Some activists say the
province's PCA Act must be strengthened. For its part, Huddart says,
the SPCA is reviewing legal advice on how it might interpret the act
more broadly-particularly in extending the interpretation of animal
distress to include psychological symptoms. The society is also
working on Criminal Code changes with the federal government, which
is considering amendments to strengthen penalties for animal abuse
and give judge more flexibility in sentencing abusers.
Eleven Lower Mainland
municipalities, including Surrey, North Vancouver and Richmond - but
not Vancouver - have passed by-laws strengthening pets' rights. They
require that owners clean up excrement from dog pens, provide
shelter of a certain size and give dogs regular exercise. The
village of Lions Bay goes so far as to prohibit unattended tethering. (comment: AAS's
campaign had these bylaws adopted.)
But there will always be a
gap between laws, enforcement and the varying sentiments of the
public. People who arenít in tune with the current value system will
continue to wake up to empty doghouses. Those who steal dogs are
dead certain that they are doing the right thing.
That, Ruth tells me between
sips of her root beer, is exactly why she decided to save Barbie
that winter. Ruth began scratching a little dirt away from beneath
her neighbour's fence on each visit. After a couple of weeks, she
had a hole big enough to crawl through. Then she called a friend.
sat in my house drinking tea until the lights went out. I tucked my
hair into a turban. I put dirt on my friend's face and we crept over
there, but that hole was filled in. I thought 'Damn it,' and took a
run down the alley at the fence, leaped up and grabbed the top of
the fence-it must have been 10 feet tall, but I used to climb trees
as a kid."
The two managed to climb
into the yard. They unhooked Barbie from her chain, checking to see
if the owner's bedroom light was still out.
was terrified. I thought, 'Please God, don't let him catch me. He'll
kill me.' But you canít live with a broken heart, so I said, 'run
Barbie, run!' We went out the front gate and ran for three
blocks to my car. Then we got the hell out of there." Barbie now
lives somewhere in Fraser Valley, with a family that treats dogs the
way Ruth would.