The Starving Dog Next Door: An Update

By: Marisa M. Kashino

I am deeply grateful to all the readers who expressed concern for the dog who lived next door to me, after I wrote about her a few weeks ago. After watching her suffer for so long and wondering how anyone could allow a pet’s condition to decline to such a dangerous state, it was heartening to hear from so many animal lovers. 

At the same time, the sincere worry that many of you felt for the dog makes it harder to share this update: She was recently euthanized. It was the best option but certainly not the outcome I had hoped for. 

After I wrote about the dog’s plight, the Washington Humane Society, the Metropolitan Police Department, and others became more heavily involved in her case. Officers from the Washington Humane Society and MPD met with the dog’s owner and ordered her to bring the dog to a veterinarian for an examination and tests. The vet determined that the dog—who was 12 years old—had worms and cancer. Though she had been skinny for the entire year I observed her, her weight had declined drastically in the weeks before I wrote about her. I’m told the worms were likely the reason. 

Given her age and myriad health issues, euthanizing the dog was the most humane thing to do. I am grateful to the Washington Humane Society for giving her some peace at the end of her life. Otherwise she would have continued to suffer and waste away in her filthy backyard. 

But what now? It took months of phone calls, dozens of visits from Washington Humane Society officers, and media attention to get a resolution for the dog next door—and by the time action was taken, it was too late for her. I know I’m not the only one who’s had to throw a tantrum to get help for a mistreated animal in the District, and, more important, I know I won’t be the last. 

After reading my piece about the dog, a friend and fellow journalist got in touch to tell me about a similar experience of his own. One of his neighbors had kept a puppy—a puppy!—outdoors 24 hours a day, no matter the weather conditions. He was surrounded by piles of his own waste and subsisting on pasta and other leftover human food. My friend had a view of the puppy from his home and took photos of him routinely. He showed me some of the pictures, and to say they were disturbing is a severe understatement. 

When, as I did, he found Humane Society officers unhelpful, he sought another solution. In his words, he “carpet-bombed” the DC government authorities that had a stake in such a situation—including the health department, the DCRA, and the DC Council—with e-mails and photos of the puppy. Finally, a Washington Humane Society officer arrived at night during a storm and rescued the poor thing. 

That dog got a second chance. But what about the mistreated pets whose neighbors don’t know how to put pressure on the right government agencies or don’t have a platform like Washingtonian from which to garner attention? Why must it take such a ridiculous amount of effort to get someone to help? The reason—and the big lesson I’ve learned from this ordeal—is that the law is flawed.

Under federal law, pets are treated as property, not as living, breathing, emotional beings. They are legally no different from flat-screen televisions. 

To anyone who loves their pets, this seems insane. But more to the point—not only in DC, but nationwide—this means it’s extremely difficult for law enforcement to intervene when a pet is being abused or neglected. Like any material possession, pets are covered by the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guards against search and seizure of property, unless authorities can meet the high standard of probable cause. 

Of course, I always believed there was probable cause for the Washington Humane Society to rescue the dog next door: She was plainly unhealthy, and her yard conditions were deplorable. But I’m just a concerned neighbor. I don’t have the perspective or liabilities of a Washington Humane Society officer. Since pets are considered property, the officers are at real risk of getting sued if they seize animals too hastily. And they work for an organization that relies on donations—WHS can’t afford to spend years tied up in litigation or have its reputation tarnished for being overly aggressive. 

When I spoke with Scott Giacoppo, the Washington Humane Society’s vice president of external affairs, for my first piece about the dog, he summed up the situation: “We can’t take an animal, get sued, and have the bad guy win.”

A quick search through court records shows that the Washington Humane Society has already been down that road. In 2003, a woman sued the organization in DC federal court for violating her right to due process after officers seized her dog. Two other pet owners who had also had their animals taken joined her lawsuit. The litigation dragged on for eight and a half years, until April 2012—long enough for one of the plaintiffs to die—before it was ultimately resolved in mediation and dismissed. 

I have no doubt that a lawsuit of that magnitude seriously spooked the Washington Humane Society—and with good reason. Who knows how much money was spent on nearly a decade’s worth of legal fees, which could have otherwise been used to help the District’s animals? The organization’s officers are completely right to be cautious, given the potential for such disastrous consequences. But there has to be some kind of a balance. It’s lunacy that a dog must literally be on the brink of death before “probable cause” can be established to intervene. 

The dog next door was a good girl who never got a fair shot. I wonder how many others like her throughout the city are waiting for someone to help them.

Marisa M. Kashino covers law and lobbying as a staff writer for Washingtonian, and also edits the magazine's Pets coverage. She and her husband live in Bloomingdale with their dog, Bexley, and their cat, Olive.