Dogs die. The lucky ones go gently, dozing away in their owners' living rooms. Until a month ago, a pair of 11-year-old dogs — Australian and German Shepherd mixes named Chocolate and MaGoo, after the cartoon character — seemed destined for such golden years. But in a strange incident that has divided a northeast Nashville neighborhood, while raising questions about the city's animal cruelty laws, the dogs met their fate in a stranger's yard, over a last meal of cheeseburgers.
Since birth, the dogs had lived with their owner, Amy Moore, in a scuffed little square block of a house in Old Hickory Village. A chain-link fence outlines its muddy rectangle of a backyard. That's where the dogs spent one unseasonably warm February evening while Moore's brother worked on the house.
He left the dogs in the yard — they'd been cooped up all winter, Moore says — and ran some errands. When he came back for them, around 10:30 p.m., the drop rod on the fence was lifted and the gates pried open. The dogs were gone.
There was no reason to think they'd get far. Even though they bore few outward signs of decline, the aging dogs moved a little slowly because of arthritis, and a prescription had left MaGoo with patchy fur and a runny nose. But Moore's brother and father tracked through the neighborhood for six hours that night, with no success. She and a few others resumed the search at 5:30 the next morning.
Moore called Metro Animal Control — her dogs were microchipped, she says — to see if they'd been picked up. She called again the next day. And she kept calling, getting no good news. Over the next two weeks, she says, she hung fliers in the neighborhood and posted two notices on Craigslist.
"It was like they just disappeared," Moore says.
A couple weeks later, Stella Irving perused Craigslist for leads on a friend's dog, who'd gone missing in the same area. On March 6, she came across Moore's second entry and recognized Chocolate and MaGoo immediately — she'd just seen them at a house less than a half-mile from Moore's home. She contacted Moore.
With Irving on the line, giving directions on her cell phone, Moore made her way to a house on Riverside Road, across Hadley Avenue from the lower-income section of Old Hickory Village. On her end, Irving could hear a woman explaining to Moore that the dogs on the flier in her hand had been hanging around for a couple weeks. Neighbors fed them, and they'd been staying in a backyard two lots over, where the homeowners had slung a tarp over a swingset for temporary shelter.
That house was Moore's next stop. A man answered the door, and his wife soon stood behind him. Over the phone, Irving could hear Moore ask if they'd seen her dogs. The voices sounded distant, but what Irving could make out didn't sound good. "I have to call you back," Moore said, and the connection went dead. Fifteen minutes later, Irving says, her phone rang again.
"They shot my dogs," Moore said, sobbing.
As Moore tells it, the couple told her they'd taken the dogs in for a week, asking neighbors if they knew the owner and praying about what to do. They explained, Moore says, that they thought calling Animal Control — who would capture the dogs with snares and tasers and likely split them up — would be "inhumane."
Instead, according to Moore, the couple bought cheeseburgers and took the dogs to a friend's house. As the dogs ate, they were shot. The bodies were buried there — along with the collars, apparently, which Moore asked for but has not received.
Moore called the police. But as an officer explained to her, at her mother's house that night, the police had no real recourse. As it turns out, picking up a person on an animal cruelty charge in Nashville requires a good deal of gumshoeing. That begins with Metro Animal Control — which has gotten exactly nowhere on Moore's case, according to field operations supervisor Billy Biggs.
Meanwhile, the incident has left the neighborhood divided. Some accuse Moore of being a bad pet owner. Others suggest that full prosecution of the family who took in the dogs — whom the Scene was unable to contact directly or through a friend — is the only reasonable course of action. Moore says she intends to press charges.
But the legal ramifications of shooting a dog to death in Tennessee will likely give her little satisfaction. In Metro, a person convicted of such would have to — ahem — begin to follow the law from that point forward. Perhaps he'd have to forfeit some animals, or take classes on essentially how not to be a total asshole.
State law is stronger than the city's, but not much. Tennessee statute equates killing someone's dog to theft or destruction of personal property. The severity of the penalty —misdemeanor or felony? — depends on a few things, including a judge or jury's monetary assessment of the dog's value, but not an owner's priceless attachment.
Many state laws are weaker than Tennessee's, according to David Favre, a professor of law at Michigan State University College of Law and director of the Animal Legal and Historical Center, a repository of data and information concerning cruelty to animals.
"This is actually pretty strong language because it doesn't say 'unnecessarily' or some other sort of lessening language," Favre says. He explains that most states don't even have a law that specifically addresses the killing of another person's animal.
There are other strong points in our state law, according to Sherry Rout, a Tennessee-based lobbyist for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Among them are provisions that make a second misdemeanor offense an automatic felony, and the mandated surrender or forfeiture of animals for any animal cruelty misdemeanor.
"In terms of how Tennessee ranks nationally in animal protection and animal cruelty related laws, I would say that we would rank in the middle of the country or just below," Rout says. "If you look at our ranking from the perspective of the best and the worst, I guess you could say that by being in the middle or just below, that we are the 'best of the worst.' "
The legislative champion of animal rights is unquestionably state Rep. Janis Sontany. This session, the Nashville Democrat is pushing legislation to create a public registry of convicted animal abusers, recognizing the well-established correlation between abuse of animals and humans.
But much like her bill last year to make equine abuse a felony (which she has filed again this year), the registry legislation was moved to the House agriculture committee — "the kiss of death for an animal bill in the legislature," Sontany says. Blame that on members' deference to the powerful Farm Bureau lobby, which helped kill her horse-abuse bill last year.
Sontany has little patience for current animal cruelty laws.
"They're treated like tube socks, just as any other property," she says. "Definitely that needs to change. And I don't see that happening anytime soon."
In the neighborhood where Amy Moore lives, neighbors say a different kind of animal cruelty is proliferating. Just across Hadley Avenue, approaching the banks of the Cumberland River — where Moore's dogs ended up en route to their last supper of cheeseburgers — the houses are bigger and the yards more spacious. There, neighbors say, stray dogs and cats have become a common sight.
"I have lived in this neighborhood for seven years," says artist Mary Crow. "I've walked my dog twice a day. I know other dog owners."
She says the neighborhood has a problem with strays, and that some of the other dog owners she knows from her daily walks take in lost dogs. Among those, she says, is the family now accused of leading Moore's dogs to their doom. To them, Crow believes, shooting the dogs was the "most humane thing they could think to do."
"It's just such a sad thing," she says. "I'm really upset for that family. They're very nice people. They're not monsters. They're not murderers. They're not mean people. I just really feel like what they did was something they felt was the only thing they could do."
Steve Webb, who lives with his fiancée and three rescued dogs a couple blocks from that family, says Moore's dogs looked haggard and hurting during the couple weeks they roamed near his house. He tried to call Metro Animal Control after they charged his dogs during a walk. Webb mentioned one of the loose dogs — presumably MaGoo — had mucus dangling from his nose.
"We're distraught about what happened to the dogs," Webb says. "However, I want to tell you from my perspective and some others', those dogs were in terrible shape."
Such judgments are not likely to mean much to a would-be prosecutor, though. Tennessee law protects the shooting of a companion animal only in cases of self-defense. And they mean even less to Moore, who cannot figure out why her dogs were put down.
"[The mother] let her kids play with my dogs," Moore says. "However, she was afraid ... to try and pick them up and put them in the car to take them to the vet or to the dog pound. She was afraid they would bite. But then they could take them to a friend's house? So see, this stuff doesn't add up."
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