Young. Male. White. Drives a black sport-utility vehicle with Virginia plates. Has a goatee (or did). Who I've just described is the most hated person in America, at least as far as anyone who cares about animals is concerned. This is the man who, in an apparent fit of road rage, reached into Sara McBurnett's car after a fender-bender a few weeks ago, grabbed her little dog, Leo, and threw him under the wheels of rushing cars outside the airport in San Jose, Calif.
Like many animal lovers, I can't get the scene out of my mind. I see it and hear it almost as vividly as if I'd been the victim. I can imagine what McBurnett felt when she saw Leo run over, and it hits me like a blow to the stomach. I can feel the waves of grief she endured after he died at a nearby emergency room. A happy, outgoing little dog, a loving companion for a decade, has been killed in a way that none of us could imagine in our nightmares. And it could have happened to any of us.
My heart breaks for this woman. And I know that catching the man who did this will never, ever change the reality of those hellish moments for her. Or for us.
I don't understand why some people are angry because so much attention has been paid to this crime. Why do people get so upset about violence involving an animal, they demand to know, when there are plenty of crimes against people we don't get so worked up about? These folks angrily accuse anyone who cares about animals of not caring about people.
They're missing the point. This is a case of cruelty against an animal, to be sure, but it's also a crime against a human being: Sara McBurnett. Leo's death was brutal, and his suffering should not be overlooked. But his pain is also over, which is more than you can say about his owner's suffering.
She will never forget what happened. I'm not sure I can, either. And all of us have to live with the knowledge that somewhere out there is a man so full of hatred and anger that he chose to hurt another human being in the worst way he could, by causing an animal she loved to die violently before her eyes.
If that isn't a crime against a human being, I don't know what is.
Crime against animals may now and then generate a lot of attention, but they're not treated all that seriously in the end. Law enforcement can't get all that worked up about animal cruelty when there are "more important" crimes out there, and the courts are often prone to a "boys will be boys" approach to young offenders. And yet cruelty against animals is one of the most surefire ways to predict a future of violence against people.
I'll grant you that most of the people who've donated tens of thousand to a reward fund to capture Leo's killer weren't looking at the bigger picture when they wrote their checks. But their gut instincts were correct: This is a crime we should care about. This is a criminal who should be punished to the fullest extent possible.
Sending this man to jail won't change what happened, but it will send a message to at least one person -- and probably many more -- that we will not and cannot tolerate such cruelty against one of our own.
And that's a message we all should get behind.
PETS ON THE WEB
The School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis was the first to launch a pet-loss support hot line. Staffed by veterinary students, the hot line has provided thousands of pet lovers with the help they need to get through the loss of a beloved pet. The UCD hot-line staff has pulled together a wonderful collection of pet-loss resources onto its Web site (www.vetnet.ucdavis.edu/petloss/index.htm). The site includes information on the hot line, as well as articles on the topic of pet loss and books to help both adults and children through a difficult time. Most veterinary schools and colleges now have hot lines and other pet-loss resources, but UCD remains in the forefront.
Cats have always meant trouble to allergy sufferers, some of whom find their reaction to cats severe enough to send them to the emergency room. But are some cats worse than others when it comes to triggering an attack? The answer is yes, according to an intriguing new study. The upshot? The darker the cat, the worse the allergy. The study's author, Dr. Arlene Schneider of Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Long Island College Hospital, said the results were interesting enough for further research (the original report dealt with a small sample of only 60 people). While it's likely too soon to draw any definitive conclusions, it wouldn't hurt to factor in coat color if your family includes an allergy sufferer and you're looking to adopt a cat or kitten.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I enjoyed your recent column on parrots. I liked the excellent points you made about training, the benefits of hand-rearing, etc. Another useful point that the general public still needs education on is that parrots are generally not "beginner" pets, particularly macaws and the showier cockatoos.
I would encourage you to periodically remind readers of the growing number of parrot-rescue operations. Though some consider these groups as misguided, evangelistic, etc., they do address a growing problem. Educating potential parrot owners of the complex nature of the birds, their often demanding habits and their exceptional life spans could help reduce the burden on parrot-rescue operations. -- Jim Millam, Director, Psittacine Research Project, University of California, Davis
A: Thanks for your note. I visited a model parrot-rescue program last summer, the Gabriel Foundation in Snowmass, Colo., and got an earful from founder Julie Murad about the groups that weren't up to snuff. Still, the fact that such groups exist and are trying to help is good news that will only get better.
And you're right that the best news of all would be for people to fully consider the responsibilities involved with adopting a pet whose life span can equal their own. Big parrots are not easy pets to live with, for all their many charms. They're loud, messy and moody, and expensive to attain and maintain. These facts definitely need to be considered beforehand.
For many people, a better choice is a small parrot, especially a budgie, lovebird or cockatiel. They're great companions without presenting the challenges their larger relatives represent.
Note to readers: The Psittacine Research Project has a nifty Web site (http://animalscience.ucdavis.edu/research/parrot/) that includes information on the program and on its free newsletter, the Exotic Bird Report. You can also write for information: Psittacine Research Project, Department of Animal Science, University of California at Davis 95616-8521.
Q: I would like to get a dog from a shelter or rescue league, but I am concerned about the dog's background. I currently have a Sheltie whom I rescued at the age of 1 from an abusive household. He has some psychological problems that are sometimes severe. I don't think I can deal with another dog with major problems. Is there any way I can be sure of a dog's background if they are from a shelter or rescue league? -- M.H., via e-mail
A: Most rescue groups or shelters are happy to share everything they know with prospective adopters. That's because they realize a pet has a better chance of making it in a new home if the adopters know about potential problems beforehand.
Is the information accurate? Not always. Some people avoid admitting to behavior or health problems because they feel the animal won't get a second chance if they do. Others make a good pet seem bad because they're trying to justify (to themselves) the abandonment of the animal.
A good shelter or rescue group takes such information with a grain of salt. They do their own evaluations and add those to the reports from the previous owners. And they work one-on-one with adopters to find the best match.
My advice would be to discuss your concerns with your local shelter or rescue group, and take your time (and their advice) in selecting a new dog. Having done rescue for a few years, I know full well how many wonderful animals are waiting for a second chance. You'll find one!
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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