Australian-Rules Reporting

By: Jason Colthorp
By: Jason Colthorp

The Aussie Shepherd story has hit me like no other in my career.

Monday night the call came in: "Animal Control has just seized 70 dogs from one home."  I hopped in the car with a photographer and got over there.  On the way, I rushed to judgment in my mind, thinking, how could some woman just have 70 dogs in her house and running around in filthy conditions?  What kind of person is this?

When we walked in to the shelter, the smell hit us like a smack to the face.  Dogs everywhere, being washed, checked out, shaved, held-- all because, as the Deputy Director told me, they were living in atrocious conditions.  I was told the woman who owned them offered a desperate emotional plea to keep them, but signed them over knowing it was in the dogs best interest.  That night we reported the facts: the largest seizure in county history, authorities called it the worst animal house they'd ever seen, and now the public was needed to come forward to help animal control avoid mass euthanizations due to overcrowding by adopting a dog.  It was an important report in terms of trying to save the lives of dozens of dogs.

The next day I was happy to report the update: all adoptable dogs had a home and no dogs would have to be put down.  People saw the story and came out in droves all day to help.  I was inundated with thank you emails and it felt like my job had really done a great community service.  But the emails started to include a little addendum that usually read, "and thank you for saving these dogs from such a horrible person."  Then I read the comments on our web site that called this woman everything from a puppy mill operator to Cruella DeVille. 

By this time the LSJ had picked up the story and I could only imagine the comments on that site.  If you've never traveled to that circle of hell-- don't.  I was there when the dogs came in and saw them.  They were definitely dirty, but I didn't see any that were abused in any way.  The Aussies that had been cleaned were beautiful.  I even pondered inquiring about adopting one.  But it's tough to argue with a 23-year law enforcement veteran who called the conditions these dogs were in the worst he'd ever seen.

Nevertheless, I wanted to find out who this woman was and give her a chance to tell her side of the story.  She obviously was well known and had support judging by some of the comments.  Wednesday, I was able to find out her name and address and track down her daughter.  After a face-to-face conversation with her, her brother-- the woman's son-- called me to talk about what was happening.  Then the lady herself called me.  To put it simply, there was definitely another side to the story. 

I'm not saying her side is the correct one.  I only saw the outside of the home and do not know all the details of the case-- not even off the record.  So, I'm not saying she's guilty or not guilty of neglect or abuse-- I just don't know.  But I think I'm a pretty good judge of character and after my conversations with this woman and her family, I don't think this woman was abusing her dogs.  I think her crime is having more dogs than she could handle and getting caught off guard by four days of rain.

My conflict is feeling bad for this woman, who complimented my work and remarked how she always like the commercials with me and my family, and still having to report the facts of the case which don't paint her in a pretty picture.  I also have some more work to do to find out which stories are true.  Is this the woman who gave a puppy to a cancer-stricken boy recently, or a woman who let her dogs wallow in their own feces?  Is this a woman who passed all her inspections and raised champion dogs that have saved lives or the one whose kennel was "deplorable as of 3 years ago" as one emailer put it to me?  Is this a woman who keeps the ashes of some of her Aussies she's lost or a woman who's just trying to make a buck?

My faith in humanity wants to believe this is a nice older woman who was overwhelmed by the economy and the elements and means it when she tells me, "I love these dogs." 

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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by Sandy Location: DeWitt on May 5, 2009 at 11:38 AM
    Thank you for being a 'reporter' as opposed to a sensationalist. There are always at least 2 sides to every story and is shows your good sense to try and cover more than the sensational side of a story. It sounds like this woman was overwhelmed and unprepared for the torrential rains we have had this spring and maybe was just caught up in how to handle her situation. Good job. I hope the dogs and their owner get the help they need.
  • by MB Location: Out of State on May 4, 2009 at 05:51 PM
    Thank you for taking the time to learn about both sides of this story. It must have been challenging for you to take a neutral stand when confronted with Animal Control folks who sound less objective about the condition of the dogs and whether or not there was abuse. Thank you for taking the time to report fairly and accurately. Also, muddy conditions are challenging with one or a few dogs. I'm sure it would be extremely difficult with so many. I don't know what the answer is nor can I draw conclusions on what I've read so far about this case. But, I just want both sides of the issue to get a fair shake. Thank for doing that.
  • by A.M. Location: Lansing on May 1, 2009 at 05:02 AM
    This story's a tough call. Shows that news isn't all black and white. The question is, what's best for the dogs, without necessarily painting anyone as a villain. I commend you for the follow up stories you're doing.
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