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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one

All may not always be as it appears

Before I found friends who like to hike, I went on the occasional group hike.

Most of the people I met on these trips were very nice, but there were always one or two people who tried my patience, or simply struck me as odd.

Take, for example, the young woman who was part of my carpool group on a hike in the Catskills. After driving past a house with a dog tied out front, I was startled to see her pull out her cellphone and call 911 to report the animal looked hot and thirsty and possibly neglected.

I, too, had seen the dog, but there was nothing about the scene that made me think the animal was unhappy, or even that we should stop and investigate further. All I’d observed was a dog tied up on a warm summer day. But a quick glance out a car window was all it took for the woman to conclude police action was required. Someone in our party gently suggested maybe she was overreacting, but she shook her head.

“Something didn’t look right,” she said.

I thought of this woman when I read about the Montgomery County dog breeder who was forced to temporarily relinquish 41 dogs following a social media outcry over photos a local dog lover posted on Facebook, along with a state police phone number.

Initially, state police didn’t find any evidence of wrongdoing when they visited Flat Creek Border Collies in Sprakers to follow up on a tip that scores of dogs were confined in small pens without adequate shelter. A veterinarian who inspected the property said the dogs appeared adequately cared for, but later changed her mind and said the breeder, Herbert Weich, had not provided adequate shelter.

A local animal rights activist, Eric Bellows, told The Gazette’s John Enger that within hours of posting the photos of Weich’s dogs lying and sitting outside in the snow, “we had hundreds of people calling the police. It was incredible.”

He added, “I’ve had people from England, Germany, Poland, all calling to encourage me.”

Meanwhile, Weich’s longtime neighbor, Brian Clukey, described what happened as a witch hunt, saying Weich owned “a lot of animals, but he was always within the law, and he took good care of them.”

Now, I don’t know what is going on at Flat Creek Border Collies. I don’t know how well Weich treats his dogs, or whether state police were mistaken on their first visit to his property, or why the veterinarian revised her original assessment of the modified oil barrels Weich provided for the dogs.

Perhaps all those dogs would have frozen to death had well-intentioned animal lovers from around the globe not taken to the phones. Maybe Weich has more dogs than he can properly care for. Maybe he doesn’t.

What amazes me is the certainty of the people calling to complain about Weich.

“Clearly [the dogs] aren’t being taken care of,” proclaimed a Facebook user from Montreal.

I’ve looked at the photographs of his dogs in the snow, and I’d be reluctant to leap to any conclusions about the care of Weich’s dogs based on the images, especially if I lived in, say, Europe. I might be willing to ask some questions, like, “How warm is it in those barrels, anyway?” or “How do Weich’s dogs usually fare in the winter?”

But I would be unwilling to condemn Weich or his operation until I learned more.

Of course, dogs do get cold, and during the recent cold snap, there were scattered reports of dogs freezing to death.

“When the temperatures reach sub-zero, it’s time to give the outdoor cat and dog a break and invite them in, even if it’s in the garage,” advises the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. “This goes for Northern breeds like Siberian huskies or Malamutes as well as medium-coated German shepherds, golden retrievers, and others in our region where they may not be acclimated to such extremes. ... If you opt not to bring the dog inside, make certain its shelter is clean, dry and well insulated with straw, wood shavings or a blanket. Animals drag a lot of moisture onto their bedding from every trip outside in snow.”

Friends of mine were once visited by the authorities because a passerby complained their livestock looked “too bony.” The complaint had no merit, and nothing came of it, but I suspect it would have been fairly easy to post a photo on Facebook and mobilize a worldwide network of animal lovers to the cause.

What’s clear from reading all the Facebook posts on Weich is the people rallying against him view his breeding operation as a puppy mill. On Friday, they were cheering Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to sign a bill allowing municipalities to regulate pet dealers and crack down on breeders who raise animals in substandard conditions.

I like animals to be well-cared for, and perhaps this legislation will do some good. But is Weich the villain he’s being made out to be?

To me, that’s far from clear.

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