On a recent afternoon, Sharon Tate turned her GMC pickup onto a rutted dirt road branching west off Route 29, and knocked on the door of a white cottage.
The door opened, and a stooped man looked up from his walker and beckoned Tate inside. Sitting at a kitchen table strewn with Tylenol bottles and a plastic tray of prescription drugs, he tells Tate that a pack of dogs killed one of his goats and harassed another.
"They bit him on his butt," he says. The man says his hired helper reported a shepherd-like dog and a Jack Russell terrier were part of the pack. "I can’t get out there and shoot the dogs myself," he says, holding up his right arm, which is braced with plastic panels and tucked into a sling.
So Tate, one of Albemarle County’s two animal control officers, steps gingerly through the muddy, dung-coated floor of a tiny stall where a goat sits in the corner. With the edge of her baton, Tate prods the creature to stand up so she can inspect the wound on his rump. A brown horse keeps one eye on Tate and the other on the green hillside rising beyond the enclosure’s wire fence.
Tate climbs back into her pickup, with a well-marked calendar, a cell phone and an old Virginia Lottery ticket clipped to the sunshade.
"I never win," says Tate. If she does, she will build her dream house, which she has mentally cobbled together from favorite parts of different homes she’s seen around Albemarle County.
Tate goes bouncing up another dirt road to another house that sits up the hill from the aggrieved goat. As she pulls into the driveway, a child’s face watches from behind a curtain. A pair of women in t-shirts and Spandex shorts emerge from the house and stand on the back porch. As Tate approaches them, a white wolf barks in a deep, aggressive tone and pulls on the chain keeping him tethered to a doghouse. Tate tells the women that their neighbor’s animals have been attacked by some dogs, as a Jack Russell terrier not much bigger than Tate’s boot yaps at her feet.
The women respond just as Tate expected they would. "’Ain’t my dogs,’" she recounts them saying. "That’s what everybody says."
This is how Tate spends most of her days––driving along the back roads of Albemarle County, mediating between neighbors. Armed with a disarmingly folksy personality and a gun she’s fired only once in her 12-year career (to kill a German Shepherd that attacked her) Tate confronts potentially violent people every day. While the rest of the Albemarle County police force aligns itself with the War on Terror and creates a reputation for roughing up civilians, Tate practices a kind of "community policing" that the County says it wants to initiate.
Unfortunately, in a City and County where public safety resources are already scarce, combating animal cruelty isn’t a high priority.
"I take a lot of vacations," says Tate. "You have to get away about every four to six months, because you get burned out so quickly in this job."
Tate gets away to the Caribbean to scuba dive and jet ski about twice a year, and she credits these trips with helping her survive more than a decade in an emotionally wrenching job.
Not that she doesn’t know how to handle stress. Tate always dreamed of working in law enforcement––a self-described country girl who grew up in Albemarle, she joined the Charlottesville Police Explorers (a kind of police internship for teenagers) before going on to study law enforcement and police science at Piedmont Virginia Community College. Then she got married and her career plans took a 14-year detour during which she worked as a bus driver. Perfect training, it turns out, for animal control.
"You learn a lot about the County if you drive a bus," says Tate. "You get an insight into how kids’ lives are affected by their home life, and you learn a lot about mediation, helping kids work out their squabbles."
Since she started as the first female animal control officer in Virginia in 1992, she has seen seven fellow officers come and go; the most recent officer quit last spring because, Tate says, she was an animal lover who could no longer face the daily encounters with animals suffering pointlessly at the hands of people who are cruel, ignorant, or both.
No doubt, the recent examples of violence against animals are enough to make anyone want to run off to a tropical beach.
On July 25, railroad worker James Willis found an adult female boxer lying on the tracks north of the Arrowhead Valley Roads Southern Crossing. According to the police report, her front paws were bound together with a cord, and she had been shot in the head and thrown from a 20-foot-high bridge to the tracks below. The fall broke both hind legs. The dog was treated and now has a new home. Private citizens have pooled their resources to offer a $17,500 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in this case.
On September 6, a construction worker discovered a tabby kitten nailed to a plywood board at Stone Creek Apartments, along Route 20 South, adjacent to Monticello High School. The kitten had been beaten to death and spray-painted gray and red.
"That’s kind of Satanic," says Leisa Norcross, whose son is a freshman at Monticello. "It’s sick to take something that’s innocent and defenseless…I just don’t understand the motivation."
What kind of person does this kind of thing? Norcross recalls the school shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
"They’re always the quiet, secretive-type kids. You don’t know what’s going on with them until after they start shooting. If they catch whoever did that, it would be like predicting a storm," she says.
At Monticello High School, principal Billy Haun says he and Albemarle resource officer Matt Powers, who patrols the school, have no reason to suspect that the killer is a student.
"To make accusations that a teenager did this, when we have no idea that it’s true, that can be a dangerous thing," Haun says. "We have no way of knowing whether that was a teenager or an adult."
Private donors have advertised a $2,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction, and the national group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is offering an additional $2,500.
According to Dr. George Boudouris, a Charlottesville psychologist, such cases of animal torture are rare, and while they are often associated with twisted teenagers, children are no more likely to commit violence against animals than are adults.
"Children are more likely to reveal the abuse in therapy sessions," Boudouris says. "Adults tend to be more guarded."
People who brutalize and torture animals may be reacting to their own feelings of pain and helplessness, Boudouris says, or acting out abuses they’ve seen or suffered themselves. "One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child," anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote in 1964, "is to kill or torture an animal and get away with it." Indeed, children who commit violence against animals are five times more likely to commit violence against people later in life, according to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine shooters, used to enjoy smashing mice with crowbars and shooting woodpeckers, according to friends. Luke Woodham––who at 16 stabbed his mother to death, then went to high school and shot and killed two classmates in Pearl, Mississippi, in October, 1997––wrote in his journal about beating his dog, Sparkle, and torturing her by pouring lighter fluid down her throat and setting her on fire. Serial killers Jeffery Dahmer, Edmund Emil Kemper and Albert Desalvo all tortured and killed animals before moving on to human victims, according to The Humane Society.
"Hurting or killing animals is one of the diagnostic criteria for what we call anti-social personality disorder," says Boudouris. The disorder manifests as a disregard for the rights of others, a trait of many serial killers.
"Its not a good thing," he says.
In patrolling Albemarle County’s trailer parks and tony subdivisions, Tate doesn’t often see the work of cruel psychopaths. In the City and County, animals are abused by people who are just plain stupid.
"Most of the calls we get are reports of dogs running loose, and reports of neglect," Tate says.
Animal control officers do not have full police powers––they carry guns, but do not have the power to arrest people. Animal control officers can write tickets to people for, say, leaving their dogs in a hot car––which usually nets a fine of $50––or issue summons for animal cruelty, which is a Class 1 Misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than $2,500, up to 12 months in jail, or both.
Animal control and police officers may confiscate a person’s pet if the animal is in danger of dying from neglect or mistreatment. On September 7, for example, Charlottesville Police Officer James Morris, responding to a report of an animal in distress, found a dog tied to a plywood doghouse in a semi-circle of dirt behind a house at 701 Rockland Ave. The dog was held captive by about one foot of chain, according to the police report, and the dog had pulled the collar so tight that it dug into his neck, and the wound had become infected with maggots. The police report states the dog had apparently been without food or water for some time. The pet owner, Curtis Christmas, has been summoned to appear before Albemarle General District Court.
All animals rescued by police and animal control end up at the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA on Woodbrook Drive. Chico, the dog from Rockland Drive, was treated for his wounds and now paces timidly in a chain-link pen, waiting to be adopted. The SPCA keeps a "black list" of known animal abusers who are not allowed to adopt animals from the SPCA, says Executive Director Carolyn Foreman.
As she drives around Albemarle County, Sharon Tate often ponders why people can’t seem to get along. If you’re a dog owner, and your dogs are running around in someone else’s yard, for example, and the neighbor complains, why can’t you just put them in the garage? And why, if a strange dog keeps appearing in your yard, do you need to solve the problem by killing the dog?
"I try to convince them to let me handle the problem, but people want to come out with guns blazing," says Tate. Whoever killed Harry Marshall’s dog took a more subtle tactic––rat poison.
Around July 28, Marshall noticed his 1-year-old Brittany spaniel, Parker, wouldn’t eat. The dog got so weak he could barely stand up. "He’s just a puppy, so my first thought was that he chewed into something," says Marshall. Then Brandy, his 10-year-old German short pointer, scratched her eye. It started bleeding and wouldn’t stop. Another dog, Samantha, also "started acting funny," says Marshall.
Tests run by veterinarian Dan Woodworth reported that the dogs had ingested Remic, a rat poison that prevents blood clotting. Brandy died in early August, but after extensive treatment Parker and Samantha recovered and "are fine now," says Marshall. His fourth dog, McKenize, had not ingested any poison.
Marshall suspects that one of his neighbors poisoned his dogs. According to the police report, neighbors reported Marshall’s dogs running loose multiple times, and his dogs have been taken to the SPCA and picked up by animal control. According to Tate’s report, the neighbor claimed to be afraid of retaliation from Marshall. Marshall says his dogs usually live behind an invisible fence––a buried wire that gives dogs a mild shock if they try to cross the boundary––but he admits Parker sometimes got loose when his son took the dogs down to the Mechums River, near the Marshall’s home in Ivy.
"If you’ve got a problem with somebody, go talk to that person," Marshall says. "Don’t go kill their dog. The dog isn’t to blame. Dogs love people unconditionally."
At the SPCA, Chico, with his neck hair shaved and his once-infected wound now almost healed, pants lovingly at Shaye Heiskell, who travels around Charlottesville and Albemarle presenting evidence on the links between animal abuse and human violence.
"If a dog is chained to a tree with maggots coming out of the wound, what is happening with the children in that house?" she wonders. "It’s a big red flag."
The link between animal abuse and child abuse is so strong the animal control agencies report cases of animal cruelty to social service workers, and vice versa.
"If [animal control officers] are investigating an animal situation, they may come to us with concerns about the children," says Phyllis Coleman, supervisor for foster care and adoption in Albemarle County’s social services department. "There’s plenty of times our workers conduct an investigation and we find dogs chained up and starving," she says. "There’s a very clear link between domestic violence and child abuse."
The SPCA’s Heiskell says the link usually takes one of two forms. A man may beat his wife, children and his dog. Another common scenario, she says, is a man beats the woman, the woman beats the child and the child beats the dog.
The good news for animal lovers is that abused pets can usually overcome the cruelties of a previous owner.
"The amazing thing is that she’s so people-friendly," says Jan-Bas van Beek, who adopted the boxer found on the railroad tracks. The SPCA received about 100 calls from people who wanted to adopt that particular dog, but van Beek’s brother-in-law happened to be the vet in Richmond who treated the dog for its injuries. "I have a boxer who is 3 years old, and I thought this dog would be a perfect buddy," says van Beek. He has named the injured boxer Britta, and he says that despite a limp the dog is doing fine.
"In the beginning, she didn’t know how to play. She had this blank look about her. But now she’s starting to play with toys, and she loves to go out and meet people," van Beek says. "She’s shown a bit of aggression towards other dogs, but that’s slowly going away."
But the bad news for animals is that animal control is simply not a big part of local law enforcement. In the City, there is only one animal control officer, and that department gets only $59,000, less than 1 percent of the $8,710,292 City police budget. In the County, there are two officers (with room to hire one more) in a department that gets 1.8 percent of a $8,178,983 County police budget. Tate used her own money to buy two of the animal traps—harmless cages with a trip-wire door––she placed near the beleaguered goat’s pen to catch the offending mongrels.
And animal control officers have less power here than other places. Some jurisdictions, like Richmond and Roanoke, have "nuisance dog" laws that allow police to ticket people who fail to control dogs that run loose or bark too much. Albemarle and Charlottesville don’t have those rules.
Also, in Charlottesville and Albemarle, dogs who attack and kill another person’s pet must be classified as "dangerous dogs," meaning they must be confined or kept on a leash with a muzzle. Other jurisdictions have adopted rules that give animal control officers much more flexibility in deciding how to deal with problem animals.
"I don’t think the folks upstairs in the County executive office are aware of how much of a demand we have for something like that," says Tate. "Are people frustrated? Yes. Are we frustrated? Yes."
One of the cinder-block walls at the SPCA is decorated with this quote from Chief Seattle: "What is man without beasts? If all beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to beasts soon happens to men. All things are connected."
In Tate’s line of work, she sees how animal suffering is connected not so much to human cruelty as human ignorance and indifference—to their neighbors as well as their pets.
"So many problems could be solved if people would just talk to each other," Tate says. "But people don’t talk to their neighbors. They want to be isolated. The sad thing is that the animals get caught in the middle."