Friday, August 27, 2010

Oklahoma style justice - the Newkirk dogs

The man who put Nelly on a chain and then forgot to feed her and 105+ other dogs pleaded guilty to five counts of animal cruelty and was sentenced to 90 days in jail this week. That's just about one day behind bars for every dog that died.

To refresh, this was the December 2008 case in rural Kay County, Oklahoma where dogs were chained and penned in all kinds of extreme weather without shelter, with green buckets of (frozen) water and barely enough food to stay alive ... The yard that was discovered by two hunters that became the headache for a county that has no animal shelter.

Jerry Southern - the dogs' owner - didn't get to this farm too often. He lived over in Kansas, where he was forbidden to own dogs due to his evil deeds in that state. So he set up shop over the border in a rented property, and staked out dozens of dogs on car axels. Feeding those long distance responsibilities was something he did in his spare time, which wasn't often enough, based on the number of dried up dog remains found at the site. Dead dogs in the (empty) house, dead dogs decomposing in dog crates, dead dogs on their chains. (Photo: warning) Nice guy, Mr. Southern. The dogs were staked near each other just outside of grabbing reach, so you can just imagine how little they liked their neighbor dogs when that rare handful of food came around. Mr. Southern - who claimed to be a misunderstood dog breeder - was up to no good. Unfortunately the sheriffs in that county were caught off guard and not able to gather the evidence that would've nailed him for the felony we all know he was involved with. Below: The scene on the farm after nearly three weeks of food and care, provided by local volunteers.

Southern was originally charged with 96 counts of animal cruelty - one for each dog that a veterinarian deemed a starvation case. Twenty months later, those 96 counts of cruelty were whittled down to a mere five after Southern offered a hefty 10K as a form of "restitution." That amount is set to be distributed to a local shelter and rescue groups including BR, after the courts get a big chunk of the payment, that is. We're told that buying the get out of jail free card was his defense attorney's idea. The DA accepted the plea agreement, apparently worried that pushing for a stronger jail sentence would anger the known-to-be-lenient judge and cause Southern to get off with a deferred sentence. When you're prosecuting an animal abuse case in Oklahoma, you take what you can get - especially while jails are bursting full.

It's hard to know how to feel about all this. We're still a little numb from our memories of taking his dogs off their rusty chain rigs one by one in the screaming wind and carrying them inside a horse trailer to be euthanized. That's not something you forget. Everyone in this team of frozen rescuers (members of BR, the wonderful MABBR and OAA) held it together as well as you can expect in the situation, knowing that twenty some dogs were getting miracle second chances. When one of us lost it during this terrible task, we'd go off to have a moment alone and someone else on the team would take over with the death march to the trailer. Right: This dog died long before the rescue team arrived.

Kay County assistant district attorney Tara Portillo told me that 90 days in jail was one of the stiffest sentences an Oklahoma judge has ever given an animal abuser, and after scouring I see that she's not exaggerating. Miss Portillo took the case because she's an animal lover and wanted to see justice served, although she reminded me (not that she needed to) that when it comes down to it, not many are ready to see pit bulls in the same light as other dogs. In her words, "Who the f-k cares about pit bulls?" Well, she does and so do we. But the world does have some questionable priorities. She told me that Peta - who tried hard to convince authorities to kill all the dogs - sent her a bouquet of red roses for taking the case. The public donated dog food and donations in small mountains and volunteers poured out to help. Meanwhile, horrible crimes against children in Portillo's district barely land on the public's sympathy radar.

Donyale Hoye and I went out there that December to offer an alternative to auto-death for all dogs. This county had never really dealt with anything like this, so the Oklahoma Alliance for Animals took custody of all the dogs to ensure that they wouldn't end up back in the hands of the perpetrator (as we're told has happened in other cases) and then, bolstered by the good press that came out of the Vick case, shifted ownership over to us. It took some doing to convince them that, despite impassioned phone calls from random strangers, pit bull rescuers are not all crazy people, and yes, we meant it when we said we would do what we could to get as many as possible into responsible hands. Easier said than done. The weather forced impossibly fast decisions and we all still have regrets about the dogs we couldn't bring home. The sheriffs were great to work with but they were under a deadline, not only with the weather, but with the dog owner who was putting together bail so he could get out of jail, and yes, back to the farm where we were working.
Left: Simon from MABBR, is still one of the biggest hearts I've met in rescue work. He worked non-stop to help the dogs and broke down crying under the pressure of selecting the handful that could be saved within this tiny window of time.

The sheriffs counted hours in their squad car from the driveway of the farm, with guns ready just in case trouble showed up. They got out a few times - once to offer me a wool hat in the freezing wind, and again to bag up the bodies of freshly euthanized dogs and take them to the dump. I stopped them before they bagged up this boy (below). Stunningly beautiful - he was scared to death on his chain and didn't want to be touched. Death allowed me to stroke his still-warm body, so I did that and whispered to him as if he was sleeping contently, stretched out on the ground, finally relaxed after months of hunching over, cold and hungry. The sheriffs stood back and let me pay these final respects, holding their heads down like you do at a funeral. Good bye buddy. So very very sorry what our kind did to you and your family.

We weren't terribly upset to learn that Mr. Southern had to be moved to solitary confinement during his short stay in jail while we were at the farm. It seems that after hours, he was getting pummeled by some of the inmates who were helping sheriffs feed and care for his dying dogs - a real live cowboy's version of justice.

So, a good pummeling, 90 days in jail, 15 years probation and a plea bargain that included a cash settlement. Is "restitution" money the new way of letting animal abusers walk away from their crimes? And if so, is a lighter sentence a fair exchange? ... and finally, where is their money coming from? (God help me - what if it's blood money?)

Despite our deep gratitude to the authorities for powering through this case and setting a new precedent in this state, one part of me wishes that the DA hadn't accepted the money, especially once I heard her answer to my question, "Did Mr. Southern ever show any remorse about his dogs?" Oklahomans don't mince any words. She responded, "He doesn't give a shit."

Above: Two dogs that made it out alive: Turtle on the left and Tully, in front.

Encouraging News in Alabama

In other news, a pit bull that had been beaten and set on fire attended the parole hearing of the man who abused him. The Alabama state parole board denied parole for Juan Daniels, who is serving a 9.5 year sentence for torturing the dog, name Louis Vuitton. The AP reported that "more than 60 law enforcement officers, animal rights advocates and other supporters of Louis crowded into the hearing. Montgomery County District Attorney Ellen Brooks asked parole board members to make Daniels serve his entire sentence because of his cruelty to the dog and the nine disciplinary actions taken against him in prison." Thank you, good people. Louis has healed from his injuries and was adopted as a family pet.

Hat tips to KC Dog Blog for the heads up on Southern's sentence.


Anonymous said...

As an empassioned pit bull rescuer, I try hard not to react to every story, every plea for help, every dog we can not take in. Sometimes its alot to carry. This poignant portrayal of what you saw and what you experienced rocked my very soul. A single tear falls from my cheek and I have renewed strength to continue on. I can only imagine the deep sadness you felt and hope that when I pass over the rainbow bridge myself that I have the honor of seeing all my Bad Rap brothers and sisters and so many, many of our dogs again one day. I am eternally grateful for the blazen path you have led, however painful and sad it is at times.

Sincerely and with heartfelt gratitude,

Lynn in N. Cal

Donna said...

We're all stronger because we (rescuers, and dog advocates) have each other. Thank you Lynn for caring like you do.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we should have tried the bastard in Alabama where they obviously give out harsher sentences. This story breaks my heart for every one of the dogs, and makes my blood boil that this monster, like so many others gets a slap on the wrist and thank you for the money. Should have let the inmates kill his sorry ass.

Just makes my drive to keep doing everything that I can for the breed that much stronger. No dog should live like this, no matter what breed.

We are pit bull people, and when it comes to our breed, we take lessons from them in loyalty. I will go to my grave advocating for animals, especially for pit bulls. Thanks to everyone that did what they did in the bitter cold, with your hearts broke wide open. We were with you in spirit:(


CAC said...

I shed a tear too, with my pit rescue Henry snoring on my lap as I read this. He was dumped in a public park in January, hungry and scared, in a county adjacent to mine with some of the cruelest BSL laws in the country (PG County, MD). He is now the light of my life. I hope that SOB rots in hell.

sharabang said...

Hi i don't own a dog but i have cats and am an avid animal lover i think it's time we all stopped looking at the breed and start to look at the owner , there are no bad dogs just bad people and it's time we had one law in this country for animal abusers they should all get the harshest punishment allowed and it should not mean paying their way out of a situation they need jail time to make them understand the severity of their crime !

Gaby dufresne-Cyr said...

After crying my heart out I have enough vision to write this comment. On behalf of my rescued pit and myself I send you my deepest thanks for helping those poor dogs!

I would not be surprised if this man has killed people before... What are they waiting for put this SOB behind bars for good!!!!

Gaby dufresne-Cyr said...

After crying my heart out I have enough vision to write this comment. On behalf of my rescued pit and myself I send you my deepest thanks for helping those poor dogs!

I would not be surprised if this man has killed people before... What are they waiting for put this SOB behind bars for good!!!!

Anonymous said...

I've been doing rehab,rescue and behavioral work with animals since I was a little girl....when will people realize that it's the people that are the problem? I wish we could save them all! I am so thankful to my cohorts that never give up trying to help as many as we can......Prayers for the ones that didnt survive this....keep up the good work everyone!

Anonymous said...

OK is apparently not so ok on serving justice, I guess. I have qualms about the restitution as well; does he have to show where it came from? As for the 90 days...well a lot could happen in jail in 3 months. I hope it's an unpleasant experience for him; I try hard to avoid negativity, but I really don't think someone like him can be "corrected" and he's deserves to be put down, unlike his poor dogs that never got what they really deserved, a home and a person who cared.

Thank you for helping the ones that could be helped. May the others rest peacefully. :(

gjwriter said...

The more I read of these stories, the more my heart breaks. I applaud your efforts to do the very best you could with what you had. I wouldn't be standing if I had to make the decisions your group has had to make. I am so discouraged by the human race, and constantly have to remind myself that there are good people like you who do the right thing for the right reasons. Even if doing the right thing can mean making devastating decisions. Somehow, someway, I hope that someday Good Orderly Direction prevails and human abuse of animals disappears forever.

Boris said...

Donnay, Donyale, Tara, Simon and all the others who came to the rescue of those poor abused dogs that cold 'Holiday Season' 2008:

Time seemed to heal some of the wounds or help push back the memories. How terrible this response, in a moment RIPPING-OPEN those sores. You have the right to feel that judgement's not enough.

I wish those survivors or or even rescues like me that you now call family, can put their heads on you lap and comfort you through the re-awoken tears.

A missionary to California used to say "Always Forward". May you never feel the need to "Look Back" as you've done so much and saved those who NEVER had a chance, without you. Keep your resolve as there remains more out there for help.

Keep telling the folks that remind you how good you should feel for saving the dogs you did. Tell them a line form a special G-pa in my life:

"... good enough for you, NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME!"

There's another horder/abuser out there, so I'll check back to see if I can help, Boris

Anonymous said...

my initial reaction is as awful as what this man did - i think he should be killed "an eye for an eye"...but i guess the better solution is to prevent this type of thing from happening...i'm at a loss as to exactly how to do that though.

Anonymous said...

What comes to my lips first is,I am so sorry for your loss. I'm in tears, but I keep repeating what I learned working on my MA in Soc, true social change is incremental. Those little baby steps are it, and you are doing it. Thank you. This is the 5th anniversary of Katrina. I had a friend from Aby rescue working at Lamar-Dixon and she told me about you guys -- "these crazy people from San Francisco who want to save Pit Bulls!!"

Kirsten said...

So sad... it's impossible not to be moved to tears.

I'm pretty unimpressed with his light sentence, but very, very impressed by all the people who came together to help the dogs and do everything they could.

Dianne said...

anonymous at 5:41 is me - Dianne R in Dc. I have a new lap top and I couldn't get the comments to recognize my password.

Anonymous said...

Dog bless those crazy people from San Franscisco who want to save Pit Bulls!

Lynn in N. Cal

Donna said...

LOL - that made me laugh, too!

Sally said...

Unfortunately, I do not believe that the legal system has an appropriate punishment for people who starve and torture animals. No amount of jail time will make him feel remorse for what he has done. The only remorse that abusers can feel is that they got caught.

On the other hand, there are so many more people who are compassionate and committed to saving our animals friends. I am extremely grateful for the mercy that so many people offered to those poor doggie souls who knew only pain and suffering.

Anonymous said...

i just dont understand how someone can do this i mean whats the point in having the dogs if your going to treat them like this i love my dogs as if they were my children i a cant even imagine what those poor babies went through and then he gets what 90 days in jail that is just not right if i could i would open up my own pitbull rescue and bring them all home

who wouda thunk it?? said...

One of the things that is so frustrating in watching people not getting the punishment they deserve for animal cruelty is this..... everyone in the law enforcement community KNOWS full well that animal abusers never stop with animals, and almost all go on to commit violet crimes against human victims. Perhaps if they had to pay for their crimes initially..... who knows. Thank God for you and those like you

vchiumw said...

We are fortunate enough to live in a county in state that takes animal cruelty very seriously. Getting through this post was very difficult. I find it hard to believe that in this day and age, after the wars and abuses of the past decades, humans can still consider LIFE expendable. We will be looked upon as monsters.

Safe Haven Hotel said...

I could not believe what I was reading and how I wish that this was some horrible nightmare and not actually going on.

Your words are incredibly powerful but the story so much more so, I only pray that somewhere these evil people can be stopped.

My deepest respect for every person that attempts to help these poor creatures - may God be with you all.

Clare said...

Beautifully written, heartwrenching article! Can you tell me what happened to the little noseless guy in the first picture. Did he make it?
Thank you for your ongoing compassionate work.

Donna said...

Thanks for asking about Nelly, Clare. She had a wonderful year of love and luxury and finally died when her little body gave out. Here's our eulogy for her and another special dog from the case:

Jenny said...

Holy God, Donna--that post was so powerful that I couldn't read it in one sitting. I had to take three shots at it before I could get through, and, of course, I was only reading it. Thanks isn't close to enough for what you guys did in this case.
I can't imagine what it would be like to be a D.A. in a place like this, trying to pursue justice against such a bleak, universal backdrop of cruelty.

Mike Sweeney said...

There really are no words ...

Here here for "Cowboy Justice"

ingrid said...

hey my post didn't take.

well, I just wanted to talk about the Cowboy Justice.

In OK their punishment for marijuana possession is a full year. Burglary about 7yrs (assuming they enforce their laws) But animal abuse- a physical abuse against another creature? An act they KNOW is linked to human violence/crime? Just 90 days? No wonder the inmates were pissed.

your story made me cry so hard, and then hug my pit rescue girl real hard.

I don't know how you guys do it, but thank the good lord that you do.

Donna said...

Thanks for trying to get your comment to stick, Ingrid.

I regret that the post was so upsetting, but am also very grateful that so many were so moved by these dogs' story.

Susan Cava Ruimy said...

If nothing else, it is nice to see beautiful Nelly's face one more time...I know that was hardly the focus of this piece but I can't help but just love love love seeing her again.

ForPetsSake said...

My heart breaks for the babies that suffered. Sometimes it's painful to feel so helpless. I've followed you on facebook and have now found you here through my own blog. Thanks for everything you do. If you get a chance, please check out my blog:

Lauren said...

Such a sad story, but the fact that you were able to give any of those dogs a second chance is amazing! I commend you for your work. I am not sure I could have handled it! You have a strong heart and amazing soul! Thank you for all that you do for these dogs!

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