JEFFERSON-The fallout from a viral video posted by a local animal rights activist online earlier this month continues to hammer local authorities.
The video, posted on Facebook Feb. 4 by Lisa Neyland Delaurentiis Fitzpatrick, appears to show a person walking up to a chain link enclosure filled with mud that includes three barking dogs sitting on the roof of a doghouse. The video, which has been viewed nearly 85,000 times as of Feb. 13, also includes shots of dogs and roosters on other portions of the property. A second video taken shortly after the first has been seen nearly 100,000 times. Commenters below the Facebook status listed the property owner’s place of employment and urged people to contact that business and local authorities.
Fitzpatrick was charged with second degree trespassing on Feb. 5, and was subsequently released after posting a $500 secured bond. She maintains she was never on the property, which is owned by Daniel Cruz of Lansing.
Since then, local authorities including Ashe County Animal Control say they’ve been bombarded with phone calls from people across the country who were outraged by what they saw in the video.
“It has been an absolutely never ending flood of phone calls since Fitzpatrick posted that video,” Ashe County Animal Control Director Joe Testerman said. “People will call us, not give their name and then curse us and hang up.”
Abuse? Neglect? Something else?
Fitzpatrick’s original video appeared to show three Beagles hovering together on the roof of a plastic doghouse. While the dogs appear clean in the video, the floor of their enclosure appears to be covered in mud and small puddles of water.
“This is OK in our county,” the person filming the video said. “I’ve been told Animal Control is on their way out, and see if the dogs are taken. I see no food or water anywhere.”
The video then pans out to show other animals on the property and the person filming the video said, “It’s OK baby. I’m going to try and get you out. These guys look it, look it. They can’t even get in the house. There’s nothing but muck. They can’t even get out of the wind or the cold because there is nothing. Nothing. But yet (the property’s owner is) probably going to get a notice and have a chance to fix the situation.”
Jane Tzilvelis, a Durham-resident who spoke with the Jefferson Post by phone this week, watched the video online and said the dogs in question are being abused.
“The temperature is going to be something like 13 degrees in Ashe County today,” Tzilvelis said Feb. 8. “I know if I was standing barefoot in that pen, in that mud, I wouldn’t be able to take it. I don’t think the dogs can either.”
Testerman said he investigated the property on Feb. 4 – the day Fitzpatrick reported the situation – and had been on-scene three other times through Feb. 12. While the original video “obviously” showed unsatisfactory living conditions for the dogs, Testerman said the animals were in no imminent danger.
“When I first received her call (on Feb. 4) she was screaming in my ear that these dogs were going to die, that this was of the utmost urgency and then we go out there and find that that is not a true statement,” Testerman said.
While Testerman said he didn’t speak to Cruz during that first visit, he said he found the animals on the property to be dry, in good condition and with access to shelter and the animals appeared to be well-fed.
He said he spoke with Cruz, who took steps to fix the problems on the property, which included putting hay in the enclosure filmed by Fitzpatrick, and an insulating layer of wood chips in the doghouses.
“People got this idea that what was happening on that property was acceptable by our standards,” Testerman said. “It wasn’t, but did it warrant seizing the dogs? No. If the owner had been unwilling or unable to comply with the changes we requested – it might have risen to that level, but it didn’t. The way the animals were living wasn’t acceptable, but the owner took steps to fix the problem.”
Testerman said the county’s animal abuse ordinances, written mainly in the mid-to-late 1990s, give him the ability to prosecute animal abusers and the latitude to suggest improvements in situations where charges aren’t the right call.
And the county’s current ordinances seem to address the situation Fitzpatrick may have captured on film. It’s unlawful, for instance, for owners to fail to provide their animals with “proper shelter and protection from the weather, sufficient and wholesome food and water to keep his animals in good health and comfort and the opportunity for daily vigorous exercise.”
In this instance, Ashe County Manager Sam Yearick said the decision to charge a pet owner with violating the ordinance becomes a judgment call for Testerman to decide. He said he supports Testerman’s findings.
“Joe grew up around animals and he’s done this for 15 years,” Yearick said. “You look at this situation and say, no, I’m not going to keep my own animals like that but Joe did exactly what he was supposed to do. He investigated the situation and if there had been obvious cruelty you charge the person. If there’s not, you try to work with the owner to remedy the situation.”
Cathy Allinder, a local county leader for the Humane Society of the United States, said this week she believed the county’s ordinances need to be updated. She said she believes the ordinances must be clarified so that pet owners and law enforcement know exactly what constitutes a violation.
“I don’t mean to say that you have to spell everything out – but like with shelter, the ordinance just says ‘proper shelter,” Allinder said. “It’s very subjective. We’re in a situation where Animal Control said this is proper. And we’ve got people who watch this video and they don’t see it the same way. The ordinances need to be less subjective.”
Yearick said he believes the animal control ordinances are fine as written but did open up the possibility that they could be amended.
“Should this be a fluid document. Yeah, I think we’ll agree with that,” Yearick said. “What was acceptable 100 years ago may not be acceptable in the future. As society changes, our ordinances should reflect that.”
The situation also highlights the power that effective social media users like Fitzpatrick are able to harness in support of their cause.
In less than 10 days, just two of the videos she posted have managed to garner close to 200,000 views on Facebook. It’s unclear if Fitzpatrick ever asked people who saw her video to call local officials, though it is clear that she asked people who saw the video to stop calling the authorities in several online posts.
Testerman said he’s been inundated with callers complaining about his handling of the situation, and Yearick said he’s dealt with callers and responded to angry emails as well.
Ashe County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cabot Hamilton said one caller had told him she would warn everyone she knew about visiting Ashe County and the Jefferson Post even received an anonymous call from someone who accused local authorities of being “yeehaw rednecks” without the training or judgment to act in a situation that is “clearly animal abuse.”
Do those allegations, if repeated widely enough online, have the power to harm Ashe County’s reputation? Yearick said he didn’t believe so.
“This is an emotional thing for some people,” Yearick said. “But do I think this is going to harm us economically? No.”
In another Facebook post, Fitzpatrick wrote that activists must continue to campaign for animals.
“We are ridiculed, told we are loony, crazy, over the top, dramatic, a nuisance, a bother, an inconvenience, even arrested,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “All I know is we are all they have.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-246-7164 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr.