Off the chain

Like every Metro Police officer does at the end of her training, Lisa Nagle had to come up with a project that would teach her commanding officers something new.

It was September 2008, and dogs had been the controversy du jour in Louisville for something like two years. Pit bulls attacked and killed a baby and an elderly person in a short time, which sent a certain kind of citizen into a frenzied panic. That sparked Metro Council into its brand of action: protracted deliberation and political circus, blemished by a stunning variety of mischaracterizations, inanities and obstinacy about so-called dangerous dogs, culminating in one especially painful session that lasted until the bars close here.

Before the council passed a complete overhaul of the city’s dog law, which almost included a ban of pit bulls altogether, there were also dark revelations about poor conditions at the city shelter and the shady past of the director of Louisville Metro Animal Services, Dr. Gilles Meloche. My 2006 LEO investigation revealed Meloche had been busted misappropriating Winstrol, an anabolic steroid, at a past job in Canada; as well, he had burned bridges with essential animal welfare agencies at two other jobs, displayed a nasty temper and oversaw significant degradation of a city-run shelter in Tallahassee, Fla. (Meloche announced late Tuesday he would resign at the end of the year; how unfortunate it took three years for him and Metro government to respond to LEO’s stories and others that followed about the deplorable state of affairs at LMAS.)

It seemed just about everyone had some kind of bone to pick with dogs.

So Nagle chose to focus her project on enforcement of the new dog ordinance, which is progressive in how it attempts to protect dogs from neglect and abuse (for example, a dog may not be chained to a fixed point at any time between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., and for no more than an hour at a time during other periods). It allows police and LMAS agents to work together on cases of harm done to animals.

There have been two separate cases of alarming violence against dogs in Louisville over the past couple months. On July 26, diners at Joe’s Crab Shack on the waterfront watched as a person tossed a pit bull from the Second Street Bridge into the Ohio River. The dog, a female about a year old, survived the fall, and firefighters participating in a drill nearby rescued her. Kelsey Westbrook, a waitress at Joe’s and a student at the University of Louisville, adopted the pup; she has told local media that the dog, Sunny, has adjusted well.

Layla was not so lucky. The female boxer mix was found in her owners’ front yard one afternoon a couple weeks ago; she had been beaten relentlessly, sustaining two broken legs and other injuries. Neighbors near Wyandotte Park told police they saw two teenagers fleeing the area around the time Layla was discovered. She was euthanized, her injuries too severe. The Humane Society of the United States is offering up to a $2,500 reward for anyone with information that helps police find the perpetrators.

Heinous instances of animal cruelty are not the norm, say officials who work on these cases. More prevalent is daily neglect. LMAS received nearly 30,000 calls between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2009. Of those, 1,054 were dogs unlawfully chained; 1,367 involved basic neglect (deprivation of water or shade); and 605 were intentional or gross neglect.

Nagle says she finds neglected and abused dogs every day on her beat, which includes Portland and parts of the West End. Dogs are often skinny, dirty and sad, sometimes chained to trees or stakes.

“It’s just an ongoing problem,” she says.

To that end, Nagle says fellow officers have upped their awareness, just as the public has turned more attention to animal cruelty in the wake of NFL quarterback Michael Vick’s 2007 conviction on dogfighting charges. Nagle busted a dogfighting ring in Louisville earlier this year; that case is set to go to trial in January.

Studies have consistently shown links between cruelty to animals and other fiendish tendencies, especially domestic violence. The common thread among several studies conducted on the subject in the late 1990s is that abusers — most often men — use violence against pets to threaten, intimidate or coerce battered women and children.

Anyone who sees animal abuse or neglect should report it to LMAS or Metro Police (574-LMPD).

“Victims of animal cruelty can’t call 911,” Nagle says. “I think there’s a whole lot more going on than the public realizes.”