Eight thin, dirty dogs, small and large and of varying breeds, scramble over each other in the small, beat-up, gray four-door sedan they have been living in for almost a week, wagging their tails and eagerly sniffing and pawing at the window when passers-by peer in.
Trisha Hair said she and her 11 dogs were displaced when her home, on 20 acres in Stevens County, burned down Nov. 27. With no place to go, she put the dogs in her car and has been staying at a friend’s apartment since.
Almost a week later, the dogs are still living in the car, which is parked on East Hartson Avenue in East Central Spokane. SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. officials say it’s not animal cruelty, but some outraged neighbors couldn’t disagree more.
A SpokAnimal officer investigated in response to calls from concerned neighbors. The officer determined the owner’s actions did not amount to animal cruelty and the owner was not breaking any laws, so they left the animals in the car.
“They have food,” said Laura Thulean, SpokAnimal’s director of operations. “They have shelter. They have been out to go potty. That’s not against the law. It’s not considered cruelty.”
Thulean cited the city code for animal cruelty, which says a person is guilty of animal cruelty if that person “fails to provide the animal with necessary food, water, shelter, rest, sanitation, ventilation, space or medical attention and the animal suffers unnecessary or unjustifiable physical pain as a result of the failure.”
But Sean Freeman, whose girlfriend lives in the neighborhood, said the dogs’ living condition is not sanitary. He said he was overcome by the stench when he opened the car door.
“Just the smell almost made me gag,” he said.
When asked if the stench amounts to unsanitary conditions, Gail Mackie, executive director of SpokAnimal, said the agency uses the state code, not the city code.
According to the state code Mackie cited, which does not specifically address sanitation or animal cruelty, a person is guilty of confining an animal in an unsafe manner if that person willfully confines animals in a manner that jeopardizes the safety of the animal or the public.
However, a different state statute says a person is guilty of animal cruelty in the second degree if that person “fails to provide the animal with shelter, rest, sanitation, space, or medical attention.”
But, Mackie added, “I would imagine if there were that many dogs in the car, it would smell pretty bad, but there were no feces in the car when officers checked (Friday).”
Neighbors said the dogs had been there for several days without food or water and appeared thin and underfed. Hair said she was not able to provide food for the dogs until Thursday. She said SpokAnimal first came out to check on the dogs on Wednesday, but the officer who investigated could not comment on the case or say when he first checked on the dogs.
Freeman said he is angered SpokAnimal left the dogs in the cramped car, with no ventilation, in freezing temperatures, for days on end.
“I was just appalled that they said there’s nothing cruel about this,” he said.
Mackie says SpokAnimal has been monitoring the dogs and periodically checking in with the owner to make sure the animals are being cared for and will continue to do so until they reach a resolution. She said they will help Hair to find homes for the dogs if that is what she chooses to do.
Hair has found homes for three of the dogs since losing her home, but eight are still confined to the car.
“They’re like my babies, so it’s been really hard,” Hair said. “I look at them like my children. I really do.”
She said she plans to find homes for four of the remaining eight dogs and keep the rest, but she doesn’t know where she is going to live yet.
“We’re just taking it day by day,” she said. “It really does kill me to get rid of them, but we just really don’t have a choice. We’re trying to care for them the best we can.”
Mackie said an officer left Hair a notice Friday evening to let her know she could take the animals to the SpokAnimal shelter for the night to stay warm.
“Obviously this isn’t the optimal situation,” she said. “We’re trying to reach a resolution. … We’re just trying to help.”