A frozen field in rural America. Helpless victims in wool coats. Two escapees, on the run, with nothing to lose.
It had all the makings of a sensational crime--and the media has descended accordingly on the town of Bend, Ore., beaming back images of the unrepentant scofflaws:
There’s Jessie, the mastermind, a middle-aged golden retriever with decidedly dopey eyes. And then there’s Chase, Jessie’s lackey, a clumsy, big-pawed beagle pup.
Their crime: sheep chasing.
Their sentence: death.
And they didn’t even catch the loping lambs.
The plight of the two dogs--now sitting on doggy death row, as their kennel has been dubbed--has riveted, and divided, the mostly rural state. From the cowboy-boot-wearing governor, who sought in vain to commute their harsh sentences, to ranchers, who are as fond of sheep-chasers as they are of barn rats, Oregonians are debating how decades-old livestock laws--written when cattlemen were kings and fences few--play in a nervous time of urban sprawl.
“It’s urban versus rural values,” said Deschutes County Commissioner Linda Swearingen, who was raised on a nearby cattle ranch but also served as president of a local chapter of the American Humane Society. “While we think the law is too restrictive, by God, keep those dogs on your property.”
Attorney Christopher Eck, who will go before a state judge March 17 to plead for the dogs’ lives, put it this way: “Livestock people are from Mars and dog owners are from Venus.”
The episode, which has been a media staple in the state of 3 million people, began on the cold, quiet Sunday morning of Jan. 5, in a most inauspicious way--with two indoor dogs suffering full bladders.
Owners Lynn Stone and her 8-year-old daughter, Kayla, ushered the two out of their duplex and into the fenced backyard to relieve themselves. No sooner had they done so, Stone says, than that most infamous of urban-interface provocateurs, a coyote, leaped the fence and joined them. A cartoon-like cacophony ensued.
Stone, a single mother studying business administration at the local community college, opened the gate to shoo the coyote out and inadvertently set the whole snarling mess upon Bend. And the rest of the Beaver State. And beyond.
“We had an execution here back in September,” said governor’s office spokesman Jon Coney. “We’ve had [three times] as many calls about the dogs as the human.”
Stone and her daughter, for whom the beagle was an early Christmas present, immediately set out to find the two. But they would know nothing of their dogs’ fate until the next day.
That, according to the testimony of neighbor Keith Kays, is because their cute pets were busy slipping through his fence and terrorizing, if not actually bloodying, four of his prized wool-bearers.
Kays did not, as would have been his legal right under Oregon law, pull out a .22-caliber “varmint” gun and dispatch the errant dogs where they stood. Instead, he did as rural Oregonians are now encouraged to do: He called 911.
Within hours, Jessie, who is especially fond of Taco Bell bean burritos, and Chase, who bawls when left alone, were behind bars. And Oregon’s livestock-protection laws, confusingly rewritten and altered over the years, but decidedly unforgiving and inflexible, were coming into play.
The next morning, Stone would receive “a call from Debbie, she’s at the sheriff’s office.” (Population 25,000, Bend is a first-name-basis kind of town.) Debbie explained the whereabouts of Stone’s dogs and the allegations against them. Stone would also learn of her two options: Sign a waiver allowing her dogs to be put to death or officially request a hearing.
Testimony before the county’s official arbiters of canine justice, the Dog Control Board of Supervisors, came three days later. It was brief. Kays, the rancher, told the board that the dogs in question chased and cornered his sheep, according to the record. Stone, who says she did not know she had the right to have an attorney with her and to cross-examine her dogs’ accuser, testified that she didn’t know precisely where her pets had gone after fleeing her backyard, but that both had been around livestock before and were anything but sheep chasers.
The verdict came back quickly: guilty. And then the board levied the only sentence available under state law for a dog found guilty of killing, injuring, chasing, harassing or, dog lovers argue, looking cross-eyed at livestock, even once: death. Immediately.
“Boy, did I go hysterical,” Stone said. So did animal lovers, even though the board, apparently swayed by Stone’s tears, stayed the execution for a day so Stone could appeal the sentence.
Gov. John Kitzhaber, the owner of a black Labrador, tried to set them free, only to learn his powers of clemency extended no further than humans. State legislators are scrambling to rewrite the law, changing the words “shall be” put to death to “may be,” and to make the statute retroactive to include Jessie and Chase. (Of course, the last two legislatures shot down similar changes.) The county commission is investigating whether it can implement a law that is more lenient than the state law. And dog lovers from as far away as Denmark are calling, faxing and e-mailing for the dogs’ freedom.
Ranchers--many of whom are dog lovers who also subscribe to the once-a-sheep-chaser, always-a-sheep-chaser theory--are scratching their heads. And even a few animal rights types say the case is not as simple as it seems.
For one thing, Jessie and Chase have been in trouble before, impounded last fall for running loose, said Stephanie Nutt of the Humane Society of Central Oregon. And Kays’ sheep are not just nameless stock animals; they too are pets, county officials say, like many cattle, pigs and goats in the area.
“What about the 4-H kid raising sheep who wakes up to find them dead in a pool of blood?” Nutt said. “That’s also likely to arouse sympathy.”
And while Jessie and Chase occupied two of the Humane Society’s 28 spaces (before being moved to a private kennel last weekend), other, less famous, dogs were being killed for lack of space. While an NBC camera crew was in the kennel recently to document the dogs’ plight, Nutt said, another dog caught chasing livestock was brought quietly in through the back door, along with an execution order, and put to death.
Nonetheless, Nutt said, the attention paid this case may be enough to finally force a rewriting of the law.
Of course, Oregon animal lovers thought they had their chance to rewrite the law in 1987, when a llama-chasing malamute named Taz wound up in the very spaces Jessie and Chase occupied.
After two years of legal wrangling, Taz’s case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court--where the emergency petition to save him was swiftly denied.
Within minutes of the ruling, Taz was, in the words of county officials, “put to sleep.”