Taking care of an animal you believe is being neglected can lead to some sticky situations….as one local woman recently found out.
In most Cayman Islands neighbourhoods you don’t have to look very far to find them.
There are stray dogs, or at least what appear to be strays, roaming in almost every district. No agency contacted by the Observer on Sunday could estimate how many there might be on Grand Cayman.
In some instances the animals are in poor medical condition, starving, or even victims of abuse. Many people find themselves wanting to do something to help out.
Bodden Town resident Sandra Catron claims that’s what she thought she was doing when she took a little pure-bred Shih-Tzu named ‘Precious’ into her home in late December, early January.
Catron ended up going to court, charged with dog stealing.
“The dog just showed up one day in my yard, I gave it some water…it didn’t even look like a dog,” she says, commenting that the dog appeared to have been neglected and needed medical attention.
Although concerned about the condition of ‘Precious’, Catron said she did make efforts to locate its owners utilising the Facebook social networking site, the Cayman Islands Humane Society, and even by contacting the police.
She said the Humane Society simply had too many animals in its facility already.
“They were about to put dogs to sleep,” Catron says. “They said ‘you really don’t want to leave the dog with us.’”
A few weeks later, Catron says the owner of the dog, came to her home and asked if she could have the animal back. Catron said no.
In March, Catron was charged with theft and had ‘Precious’ taken away from her by the Agriculture Department, which has responsibility for animal welfare in Cayman. Her trial on theft charges proceeded in May.
During the trial Crown Counsel Trevor Ward argued in court that Catron was breaking the law even if she took the animal in with good intentions. He told the court that although Catron claimed to have come by the dog innocently – finding it – she had still appropriated the animal.
Catron, acting in her own defence, said that theft was defined as the “dishonest appropriation of the property of another with the intention of permanently depriving the other of that property”.
She also pointed out that the Animals Law requires a person taking possession of a stray to report it to the nearest police station within 24 hours. The animal can then be retained by the finder or handed over to the police.
The law also states: “If the finder retains the dog in his possession he shall hand the dog over to any person who can show himself to be the owner thereof and makes claim thereto within 15 days.”
The owner of ‘Precious’ showed in court that she had imported the Shih-Tzu from Jamaica in 2008, paying US $1,500 for the animal.
Catron argued that the owner never proved that claim to her and also stated the 15 days referenced in the Animals Law had expired by the time the owners showed up at her home. The dog owners live on the same street as Catron.
Eventually, the theft case ended up being tossed out of court without Catron having to present a defence.
Acting Magistrate John Furniss said after the case that he was “appalled” such a case had come before the court. However, Furniss did rule that ‘Precious’ had to be returned to the rightful and lawful owner.
“It’s been a real eye-opener for me,” Catron says of the entire affair.
A dog-lover’s dilemma
Although most cases involving pet ownership, adoption and care don’t end up in the Cayman Islands court system, Catron’s situation highlights an issue in the Cayman Islands – one that has become more common as dogs especially have proliferated.
What can one do with an animal that appears to be stray, neglected or even abused?
First of all, Department of Agriculture officials point out that abusing an animal is a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail upon conviction.
The department has the power under the law to seize animals from an unsafe environment. Assistant Director Brian Crichlow says there are two animal control officers who pick up stray, neglected or unwanted animals – this includes dogs, cats and chickens – between 7.30am and 4.30pm Monday through Friday, except public holidays.
Strays on private property can be picked up at the request of the property owner as well as in public places where the animals are found roaming. All animals picked up by the Department of Agriculture are taken to the entity’s animal rescue shelter.
However, the department admits its rate of euthanising animals is high. In 2009, 642 animals were put to sleep at the department’s shelter. Through 14 April of this year, that number was 146.
In any case, Dr. Brenda Bush, one of Cayman’s foremost veterinarians, says she’d rather see education of pet owners take place, as opposed to the seizure of those animals from an unsafe home.
“Taking it away won’t address the problem that exists,” Bush says. “A lot of times…you’ll see those people getting a new puppy because the kids are upset the old dog is gone and the cycle of neglect continues.”
In the case of animal abuse or cruelty, however, Bush says the pet should be removed from a home immediately. Animals can be removed for neglect as well.
“We see so many, cruelty less than neglect,” she says. “A lot of the cruelty cases are because the animal has wandered into somebody’s yard and gotten machete chopped or poisoned.”
Those individuals who have allowed their animals to wander away from home, or to roam free without a lead have also committed an offence under the Animals Law (2003 Revision). But those cases, in practice, are rarely if ever prosecuted.
“Prosecutions of this nature are time consuming and this matter will be revisited to look at more effective methods during a review of the law,” Crichlow says.
Again, Bush points out abuse cases are fairly rare. Far more often, the owners can’t afford to provide needed medical care for their pets, or simply don’t know the basics of how to care for a dog or cat.
Bush recalls one such case earlier this year where a dog was put with a foster family because its original owners couldn’t afford the medical care it needed.
“The dog really had to get some very specific medical attention,” she said.
Eventually, the foster family was allowed to take the dog in by the owners.
“It worked out in that case, but there have been others where, once the owner realises a dog has been found, they want it back.”
Help in CARE
There are other options for those in the community who want to help strays and neglected animals that do not involve dropping them off at overcrowded shelters where the animals will eventually be euthanised if they are not adopted.
The non-profit group, CARE (Cayman Animal Rescue Enthusiasts), started up officially in 2008 with a slightly new approach to the problem.
CARE volunteers have compiled a list of about 400 people who are willing to take animals into a foster care situation on a short-term basis. There is no expectation that the dog or cat will stay at those volunteers’ homes for longer than the set time. But they do provide a temporary home for an animal so it can receive medical care, food and hopefully get adopted at some point down the line.
CARE board member Lesley Agostinelli says her group tries to act as a release valve for the often overburdened Cayman Islands Humane Society.
“I think they have about 70 dogs in the Humane Society building, right now,” Agostinelli says. “They’re bursting at the seams.”
Prior to placing a dog in a foster home, CARE will check out the premises to make sure volunteers can adequately care for the animal.
Volunteers also perform door-to-door service for spay and neuter operations; meaning they’ll go to someone’s home and take a dog to the Humane Society for the operation.
“It’s sort of like doing a campaign for spay and neuter,” Agostinelli says.
CARE also stresses the importance of proper care for animals and believes the Islands need a much broader education campaign on this issue.
“Because of a lack of education in some situations, animals are left with no shelter, shade or water, and it doesn’t register to the owners as abuse,” she says, “and simply taking that dog and placing it in the (animal) shelter is not a solution.”