As the case against two brothers accused of setting a pit bull named Phoenix on fire unfolds in a Baltimore courtroom, a cat named Mittens is nursing both her kittens and the wounds she received after being set on fire in the city.
It may not be raining abused cats and dogs, but this — one case entering the public consciousness before the other has a chance to clear it — is how a reputation gets made. And if Baltimore doesn’t do something — something big, something quick — it stands in danger of becoming known not as the city that reads, or even the city that bleeds, but the city that torches, and tortures, its pets.
Whether it deserves that label more than other cities is arguable. It’s also not the point. The point is the torture of animals is a big flashing neon sign, reading “Address This Issue.” It’s a highly visible symptom of an illness in society that, even though it has been diagnosed, is largely being ignored.
Baltimore has no monopoly on animal torture — and it’s not the only city that’s failing to fully address it. In cities across the country there are pockets of misguided youths who have either failed to develop any compassion, may never have been taught any, or have had it snuffed out of them.
Attacking the problem is something that should be done not just for reasons of image, but, much more importantly, because it has been well documented that children who take pleasure in torturing pets often grow up to inflict harm on fellow humans. Pick a serial killer and you can, almost always, find animal abuse in his past.
If how a society treats its animals is a barometer of how civilized it is, Baltimore needs a massive injection of civility — stat — some large doses of empathy and compassion, best administered during childhood.
The saddest irony of it all is that animals are one of the best ways to administer that, to teach children a respect for all living things. Instead, dogs and cats, who we have so much to learn from about life, love and happiness, time and again in Baltimore are serving as the victims for those seeking sick thrills or acting out their inner hostilities.
Mittens, according to officials at Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter (BARCS), was placed into a milk crate by a juvenile who doused both the cat and the crate with lighter fluid, struck a match and threw it into the crate.
In flames, the cat broke free from the milk crate and ran from the yard, running in circles until the fire was extinguished, BARCS said. She then returned to the kittens she had recently given birth to at a home on Saint Ambrose Street. (St. Ambrose, for some more irony, is considered the patron saint of domestic animals.)
That incident came to light after the first day of testimony in the trial against teenage brothers Travers and Tremayne Johnson, who are accused of dousing Phoenix, a pit bull, with accelerant and setting her on fire on May 27, 2009.
On Friday, Baltimore city police detective Syreeta Teel tearfully described finding the pit bull on fire on a West Baltimore street and running from her squad car to smother the flames with a sweater.
Despite her quick and heartfelt response, one thing that’s becoming evident during the trial is that the police department doesn’t take torturing and killing animals as seriously as some other crimes.
Teel, according to testimony, left the sweater, which might have provided traces of accelerant, on the sidewalk. The scene was never secured, and the police crime lab was never called. “The Baltimore City Police Department completely botched this,” said Assistant Public Defender Karyn Meriwether, who represents one of the brothers.
The death of Phoenix drew national attention, leading to thousands of dollars in donations to a reward fund and the creation of a city-wide Anti-Animal Abuse Task Force, which issued a report last year that found numerous flaws in the city’s response — particularly that of law enforcement — to incidents of animal abuse.
According to a Baltimore Sun report, the prosecution’s evidence is limited in the Phoenix case, and relies largely on unclear surveillance video and the word of witnesses — including a woman who the defense says came forward once the reward topped $25,000.
Phoenix was burned over more than 95 percent of her body. Veterinarians would later find that her corneas had melted, and the inside of her mouth was scorched. She’d lost her footpads to the flames, but she kept fighting until, with her kidneys failing, she was put to sleep five days later.
“On a scale of one to 10,” her pain level was “10,” said a Pennsylvania veterinarian who treated her. Phoenix also had puncture wounds on her neck and leg, indicating she might have been in dog fights, but throughout her treatment she showed no aggression.
The Johnson brothers both were initially charged in juvenile court, but were later indicted as adults on the animal cruelty charges, which carry a maximum prison sentence of three years. Testimony is expected to continue this morning.
Animal advocates in Baltimore are watching the case closely, and hoping that, if found guilty, the twins receive the most severe punishment posible.
But as the weekend’s developments show, as Mittens reminds us, a strict sentence is not the entire solution. It’s reactive, and while it may send a needed message, the city needs to do more, in a proactive way. Investigating, arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning animal abusers all need to be done, and done properly, and taken seriously, but what’s even more vital is preventing it from happening in the first place.
Our favorite reader comment: “Kindness and concern for animals is going to have to be taught in elementary school. It’s the only way to stop this problem in its tracks.”
To see all the comments on this post, click here.