Last February, while PETA's volunteers were delivering straw to chained and penned dogs in Portsmouth, Va., a neighbor pointed them to some dogs across the street. They walked over and spotted an old, dirty dog crate tucked away in a corner, surrounded by junk. They thought it had been trashed, but when they turned to leave, a dog locked inside the crate began whining, thumping his tail and jumping in excitement. When they approached, they saw that there were two dogs in the carrier -- and one of them wasn't moving.
Inside was a gut-wrenching sight: the dead body of a brindle pit bull named Dynasty, so emaciated that every bone was clearly visible. The surviving dog, a male pit bull mix named Blue, was so cramped inside the crate that he could not avoid stepping on Dynasty's remains. Blue was also underweight, and his white paws were stained yellow from standing in the urine that soaked the floor of the crate.
The volunteers called the police, and the dogs were eventually relinquished to PETA. Dynasty was necropsied for evidentiary purposes, and Blue was adopted into a loving home. The dogs' owner, Adriane Mason, was indicted and found guilty of cruelty to animals. The presiding judge was so moved that he said he wished he could impose on Mason a sentence similar to the one that Mason had imposed on his dogs -- confining him to a crate without food or water in the middle of winter -- but, the judge remarked, that would amount to "cruel and unusual punishment."
Animals like Blue depend on us to keep our eyes peeled for them. That chained, skinny dog you pass every day on your way to work may have no one else to count on for help. Luckily, there is usually some legal recourse for neglected animals. Owners are required by law to provide animals with food, water and adequate shelter, so if we see animals deprived of these necessities, our call to authorities and our persistence can result in their rescue.
In situations that are cruel but still legal, many good Samaritans have succeeded by persuading owners to take dogs indoors and let them live with their human family. A polite approach works best, so start by befriending the dog's owners, even if it's an uphill struggle. Try complimenting their kids or their car or offering to help shovel their driveway. Then gradually begin talking to them in a nonconfrontational way about what dogs need. You could relate your experiences with your own dog or mention that you recently learned that dogs are pack animals who thrive on spending time indoors with their families. You may be pleasantly surprised to see your neighbors making an effort to improve conditions after just one conversation.
If they won't allow their dogs indoors, you may be able to persuade them to let you visit regularly to take their dog for a walk, give him or her toys and treats, or play fetch in the backyard without encroaching on their time. While these things are no substitute for a loving home, they mean the world to dogs who are forced to live in solitary confinement.
Sometimes, all it takes is one phone call to save an animal's life. That was the case with Noel, who was tethered to the trunk of a thorn bush, unable to move more than 10 inches in any direction and shivering violently in the December cold.
She had no shelter, no water and no food except for a few pieces of stale kibble that were scattered on the ground, out of her reach. Scabs and open sores covered her ears and tail and her ribs and hip bones protruded sharply.
A call from a compassionate neighbor had PETA's fieldworkers on the road in minutes. They rushed Noel to a veterinarian, who confirmed that she had been starved. After treatment, Noel was placed with an experienced foster guardian, and she quickly gained 17 pounds and started to trust humans again. Eventually, Noel was adopted by the Virginia Beach SPCA's youth programs director, who reported that the formerly shy dog is now the "sweetest, sloppiest kiss-giving, bedtime snuggler."
A judge sentenced Noel's abuser to 40 hours of community service, one year of supervised probation and, most importantly, a lifetime ban on ever owning animals again.
Blue and Noel now get to go on leisurely walks during which they are allowed to smell the roses. They have toys to play with or chew, balls to chase, full stomachs and happy hearts. They are loved and respected. But there are still plenty of dogs, cats, rabbits and other animals languishing in backyards, basements and garages across the country, alone and unloved. People who check on them and notify authorities of abuse aren't "nosy neighbors" -- they're guardian angels.