Sophie's Choice in Philadelphia
(author unknow at the moment- it will appear in the Chronical of the Horse on Friday)
Wendy Willard, a retired school teacher and MBH of the Murder Hollow Bassets, kennels her hounds in a barn near her house located inside a 340-acre nature preserve, the largest single privately-owned parcel of land within the city limits of Philadelphia.
On Monday, July 27, seven officers from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement, the Philadelphia Police, and the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA), in as many vehicles, staged a full-scale raid on Murder Hollow's kennels apparently in an unsuccessful search for an illegal dog breeding operation.
Murder Hollow had, at the time, ten and 1/2 couple of hounds, and Ms. Willard was additionally keeping two aged and retired bassets in her house. The Commonwealth Dog Law Enforcement officers found no illegal kennels under state law, and took their leave, but PSPCA "Humane Law Officers" accused Wendy Willard of being in violation of Philadelphia's Animal Control Code, which requires a waiver from the Department of Public Health for the keeping of more than 12 dogs or cats in "a residential dwelling unit."
Wendy Willard had found on her front door a card from PSPCA containing no message a few days prior to the raid. On Monday, the authorities arrived again and requested entry, then returned promptly equipped with a warrant after being initially turned away.
In subsequent reports by PSPCA, no mention of a search for a dog kennel violating state law, which according to Jessie Smith, Deputy Director of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, was the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement's basis for obtaining the search warrant used to gain entry to the Murder Hollow property, was ever made. The raid, featuring seven officers from three official organizations with five trucks and two police cars, according to PSPCA's later statements, was simply occasioned by a (never identified) neighbor complaining of dogs barking.
PSPCA Humane Officer Tara Loller proceeded to present Wendy Willard with the kind of cruel dilemma depicted in William Styron's 1979 novel Sophie's Choice. In the novel (made into a 1982 film starring Meryl Streep), a young Polish mother sent to Auschwitz is forced by a sadistic Nazi doctor to choose which of her two children she will be allowed to keep and which will be immediately gassed.
"They are my family," a distraught Willard said of her dogs,â€ reported the Philadelphia Daily News on August 7th.
Loller demanded that Wendy Willard immediately surrender eleven hounds, reducing the number on her property to twelve (and agree to have all but four of those remaining neutered), or Willard was warned, PSPCA would take all her hounds. "We can give you enough citations to take your house," the PSPCA officers boasted to Willard.
According to a one former PSPCA humane officer, quoted in a story in the Pocono Record last December, this kind of tactic is a standard part of PSPCA humane officer training statewide. "We were taught to intimidate people into giving their animals up. We were told to tell them "in lieu of charges, surrender your animals." Some former officers told the Record that they were given a quota of surrendered animals to fill, and that humane officers' annual bonus payments were dependent on meeting their quotas. In order to persuade animal owners to sign surrender documents, PSPCA Humane Officers are evidently not above lying.
Three of the hounds on Wendy Willard's property had come from the Sandanona Hare Hounds of Millbrook, New York. Sandanona's Master Betsy Park , specifically in order to avoid any of her hounds ever falling into the hands of an animal shelter, makes a policy of retaining title to any hounds drafted, given as stud fees, or retired from her pack. With any hound originating from Sandanona comes a contract requiring its return to Mrs. Park in the event that it can no longer be cared for at its new home. The PSPC A officers assured Wendy Willard that Betsy Park would be able to reclaim her hounds after their surrender. She would, naturally, have "first claim" to their new adoption. There was, of course, no truth whatsoever in those assurances, but they led Wendy Willard to believe that unlucky Sappho, Anxious, and Harlem would have a better chance of being recovered.
PSPCA, in the case of pedigreed dogs like the Murder Hollow Bassets, channels them into a breed-oriented rescue system, which houses them in private foster homes, and then distributes the basset hounds to new owners in exchange for a $200 adoption fee. Less desirable animals, "rescued" by PSPCA after a 72 hour hold time are simply euthanized.
PSPCA in its press releases has repeatedly claimed the eleven bassets taken had been transferred to foster care by a partner rescue organization. Apparently, however, this is not the case. I personally contacted basset rescue organizations last weekend, trying to identify the location of the seized hounds. The director of adoptions at the regional rescue organization told me he had been scheduled to receive 10 of the bassets taken from Murder Hollow, but that the transfer had been cancelled, and the hounds "frozen" and "locked down" in the PSPCA holding facility as "evidence" is a case now considered under dispute.
Evidently, either efforts by Sandanona to recover their three hounds, or discussion and criticism of the Murder Hollow raid on a variety of dog-breed-oriented bulletin boards on the Internet beginning about the same time early last week was deemed sufficient by PSPCA to cause the animal welfare organization to move to the defensive. As a news report on a similar PSPCA case observes, whenever there is a legal challenge to PSPCA, the confiscated animals become live evidence, and will be kept in storage cages for months, and sometimes years, while court cases drag on. Animals whose ownership is under dispute will not be transferred for adoption.
It may not be completely coincidental that the PSPCA additionally stopped applauding Wendy Willard for "working to clean and improve the kennels" or being "encouraged by her efforts," but instead was disappointed to find on upon its Friday, August 7th follow-up inspection that "overall living conditions remained poor" resulting in 11 citations for unsanitary conditions, 11 citations for lack of veterinary care and two tickets for barking.
The raid on the Murder Hollow kennels and PSPCA's policies, operations, and behavior in the present case have been widely criticized on the Internet and by field sports organizations rallying to Wendy Willard's defense.
William E. Bobbitt, Jr., president of the registry and organizational authority for hunting basset packs, wrote:
"Wendy Willard hasmaintained a pack of Basset Hounds recognized by the National Beagle Club of America since 1989. She frequently brings her hounds to the Institute Farm to compete in the Basset Pack Trials held there and her hounds are always fit and well cared for. In fact, she treats her hounds like family members. We want to support Wendy in her efforts to maintain the 6 couple of hounds that remain with her, but we also have great concern for the welfare of the hounds which were seized and taken.
There are Basset packs that are willing and anxious to take those hounds in and provide them with good hunting homes, which is what they are used to, and we hope that the PSPCA will cooperate in making these placements possible, instead of keeping the hounds confined in cages at a holding facility."
Lt. Col. Dennis Foster (USA, ret.), Executive Director of the Master of Foxhounds Association of America, the senior scenthound organization in the United States, called the PSPCA's actions "a travesty." He described the confiscation of Murder Hollow's hounds as "a classic example of a government agency going out of bounds." Foster dismissed the PSPCA's charges against Ms. Willard and described their subsequent handling of the Murder Hollow bassets as recognizable as the "behavior of people who do not understand hounds."
(This article will appear in the Chronical of the Horse on Friday)