March 12, 2020

How to find Compassion for Animal Abusers (& why we Must).

Last week, 145 dogs were seized off a five acre private property in Dixie, Florida.

News of the rescue operation hit social media shortly afterward.

The photos and video footage released by the Humane Society show dogs of all ages and sizes, existing in what looks like a dark, filthy mobile home. The videographer approaches the doorway, which appears to have no door at all, and is filled with dogs. Barking and howling can be heard, and beagles seem to be the first to push their way out.

Standing quite still in the middle of the door frame is a black-and-white pitbull. The bare skin around his eyes makes them seem so round and withdrawn. Creases on his head, areas on his back, and most of his tail are bare too—likely from mange. The nails on his front paws are scarily long and make his first knuckles bend excessively back.

Five seconds into the video and I’m squinting through tears. I can’t stop thinking about those eyes.

As the person filming ventures further inside, she says, “Hi Sweethearts,” in a singsong voice as she approaches three almost completely bald canines nested on a pile of ragged, soiled blankets on a low bed, next to an old TV. Their bare skin looks red, lumpy, and scabby from such severe mange. The female voice announces that there “appears to be a great deal of suffering.” Tears now roll freely down my cheeks.

Mange, or canine scabies is caused by an infestation of Sarcoptes Scabiei which is a highly contagious burrowing mite. These mites push their way under the animal’s skin and cause severe itching by way of allergic reaction to their feces. The itchy dogs scratch and bite themselves, which commonly leads to fur loss and other secondary skin infections. When a dog is suffering from starvation, poor health, or a compromised immune system, mange can develop into a “highly crusted” form which might not occur in a healthier dog. There are topical and oral treatments to cure mange. But it’s clear the mange has progressed for some time without medical attention. My heart aches for their suffering.

As the video sweeps deeper into the space, it gets darker. It seems like all natural light has been blocked out. The viewer sees another bed with eight or nine Chihuahua types visible underneath it. The plywood floor appears caked in feces. Some areas covered in damp shreds of soiled newspaper. More dirty blankets. The female voice is counting: “13, 14, 15, 16.” I can hardly believe what I’m seeing.

Then the video cuts to some outdoor enclosures—unevenly assembled barn boards with pieces of rolled wire fencing held to the outsides by bent nails. More haunting eyes staring out. More red, sore, bald snouts and bodies in every frame. We see falling raindrops, and we know by inference that these animals do not have adequate shelter. Anger rises sharply from deep in my gut.

In the 50-second video, a lot of the dogs wagged their tails as the videographer approached them. This somehow breaks my heart further. The purity and innocence of the animal spirit is unparalleled.

I hunt for my wallet and send the Humane Society a donation so I can somehow feel a little less powerless than I do at that very moment.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, I can’t get those round, dark, withdrawn eyes out of my mind, nor can I forget the scabby, partially bald tail that he held so still while others pushed their way around him. I watch the video again and again. I read the comments, which range from disapproval of the entire human race, to “don’t donate because the CEO of the Humane Society makes a six-figure salary,” to thankfulness they have been rescued, offers to foster, and confirmations of support by donation. I google the rescue operation to see what other news could be found. I link to the video on my Instagram story.


I’ve now learned that three men and two woman have been arrested and each charged with 145 counts of animal neglect. Ranging in ages from 26 to 66, all five lived on the property.

Officials relay that they were not breeding the dogs to sell, so it’s unknown why they had so many. Local authorities, searching for a lost dog, came across the property in January. Together with the Humane Society, a several-week-long investigation resulted in warrants for their arrest last week. Their bail is set at $435,000 each.

One-hundred-forty-two dogs have been released to the humane society to be treated and re-homed. Three are being held as evidence for the trial. I wonder if it’s the three furless ones from the video. I’ve added a screenshot of the five people arrested to my Instagram story: “I hope justice is served.”

There was another type of comment on the video and subsequent photos posted by the Humane Society relating to this case. It was the type of comment that hopes that whoever is responsible for mistreating those dogs rots in hell.

Injustice stirs in us many painful feelings, such as anger, frustration, helplessness, sadness, and vengeance.

Something unfair occurs, and we demand justice. An eye for an eye, a repercussion that matches the wrongdoing. The laws of physics clearly state that for every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. The spiritual version of Newton’s Third Law comes from the Buddhists. They believe in karma, which declares that the sum of one’s actions and intentions in this life or previous lives determines their destiny. But karma puts faith of retribution in the hands of the universe, and that can be a tough pill for our human brains to swallow.

It’s hard for me to admit, as a person on the spiritual path who shares and teaches yoga, that I quite readily wished terrible things onto the people who neglected these animals. Turns out, I was in the same boat as the vengeful people.

I was also in the same boat as the people who were discouraged with the state of the human race.

I was totally in the same boat as those who were thankful the dogs had been found and rescued.

I was not in the same boat as those who felt that people directing and executing operations at the Humane Society shouldn’t have great salaries. Instead, I was in the boat with the people who had donated money to help.

And I was in the boat with the people who wished a terrible fate for five people I knew nothing about—who were now awaiting trial for 145 counts of animal neglect. And I felt really guilty about that. I wanted to look at these feelings a little bit more.

What did I know about those five people? I had seen their photos, their names, their ages. I had a general idea of where they lived. I had watched (and re-watched) a video that included two beds and a TV. Which, at the time, I couldn’t fathom that any humans could also live in that dark, dirty, sh*t-covered space—full of dogs with mange. But maybe somebody did live and sleep there. The conditions seemed appalling for any living being. Various articles indicate there was a mobile home and a couple of trailers on the property.

The median average income in many rural areas in Florida is really low—like roughly half of what the median average income across the entire United States is. And no doubt there are a lot who fall below that median too.

When I want to feel my way around strong feelings, one tool I use is asking “and then what?” repeatedly. Usually, I start from the present moment and ask away to escalate a situation hypothetically. This can give a handle on what my fears are, and what worst-case scenarios might look like.

I wondered if I could use this tool to trace a hypothetical line from the past to the present—145 dogs living in squalor and neglect sure qualifies as a worst-case scenario. And while I will never know what happened there, my hope in this exercise was to find my compassion. Compassion had come out in arms for the dogs…but could I find any for the people who were responsible?

Here we go:

What if the whole thing grew out of a pretty standard love for dogs? Surely at one point this started with just a couple dogs that were regular pets? Maybe a few others show up. Or get dumped nearby. I know dogs get dumped all the time. And maybe they didn’t want to turn any away. Or maybe one of their dogs got pregnant and had a litter. Some litters can be 12 or more pups. That’s a lot of animals to vet and find homes for.

How quickly could such a situation escalate?

Vet care is a real expense for one or two pets, I know. But say 7, or 15, or 32 pets? It would be be near impossible to afford.

At what point do we occasionally look around and think, “Sh*t. I’m in way over my head.” Had I ever felt too ashamed to ask for help? Had I ever worried about having enough? Or have I ever needed to simply do as much as I could with what I had available to me?

Have I ever felt there was no way out? Or wanted to give up completely?

Yep, yes, I have. Common ground is sobering, isn’t it?

I want to be clear about something. I grew up with a chocolate lab, watching “Old Yeller,” and have always cried my eyes out at humane society infomercials. I’ve worked at a pet store, I’ve volunteered at my local animal shelter. And I’ve adopted an amazing, but sometimes challenging, rescue dog. And a super-senior cat whose care in the last year of her life taught me about the depth of love (and the cost of veterinary care). My love of animals is at the front of my big, mushy heart. I also teach yoga, and speak often of empathy and compassion in my classes. I identify as an empath.

So finding myself wishing pain onto other humans struck a spot I wanted to dig into.

Finding my way to compassion for the people who neglected these dogs doesn’t mean I approve of their behavior. Every situation is a culmination of decisions, or indecisions (and remaining undecided is a choice we make too). There are a lot of forks in the road where our choices guide the course of what unfolds.

These people failed repeatedly to choose with the best interests of the dogs in mind. And they also failed to choose with their personal best interests in mind.

Does this make them unworthy of compassion? I don’t think so.

In no way do I condone the way they kept these animals. A judge will decide the legal outcome in a court of law. I am pro laws and regulations that are for the protection of animal welfare and rights. There needs to be a voice for animals. There needs to be enforcement when these laws are broken.

Compassion asks that we recognize suffering. Compassion also asks that we feel connection and concern for the one who is suffering.

This was instantaneous for me with the dogs.

For their keepers? I had to dig deep around my inner landscape to find it. Nosing out some relatable common ground was the key.

We are all human. We come to life from every angle imaginable. Our families and their decisions shape us. Society and our communities shape us. And finally, our own decisions shape us…the sum of our actions and intentions. Our actions have consequences. Legal, karmic, and otherwise.

But hopefully we can all be graced with at least some compassion as we go. As we grow.

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May all beings be happy and free. And may the thoughts, words, and actions in my own life contribute, in some way, to greater happiness and freedom for all. (Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.) ~ a Sanskrit mantra

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