In a small town, death and killing are often visible parts of life, especially for farm kids. They might hunt deer. Their families might breed cattle for slaughter.
But feeding an ailing puppy to a snapping turtle?
On March 7, according to local news accounts, a junior high teacher in Preston, Idaho, did just that in front of several students at his school. Details about the incident remain fuzzy, as officials have declined to talk about it. But the outrage that followed was predictable.
A local animal rights activist, Jill Parrish, called it “a cut-and-dried case of animal cruelty” and filed a complaint to the sheriff’s department, which launched an investigation.
National uproar ensued, with the animal rights group PETA calling the teacher “a bully who should not be allowed near impressionable young people.”
People in Preston, a community of 5,354, were also outraged — that everybody else was making such a big deal about the puppy.
As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 2,500 people had signed a petition to Preston’s school board expressing their support for the teacher, Robert Crosland.
“Two of the three kids present were mine,” wrote one parent, Farahlyn Hansen, in a Facebook post supporting Crosland that has been shared more than 200 times. She did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“NONE of the kids were upset or traumatized,” Hansen wrote. “They do not need counseling. They saw the physical state of the very young puppy. It was sick, wouldn’t accept food, and was dying. All of the three kids that were there felt Robert did the humane and right thing. My children work on farms, they understand life and death.”
Other petitioners also expressed their support for Crosland — a beloved teacher who had taught science to many of Preston’s students — praising his character and skills as an educator.
“Four of my kids have had him for a science teacher,” wrote Amanda Palmer. “They loved their science class, each having their own great experience with Mr. Crosland. I support him 100%. I hope that he will be here to teach my daughter next year.”
“He has not only taught my kids but now he is teaching my grandkids,” wrote Dixie Baird. “He is an amazing teacher. He leaves an everlasting impression on his students.”
Some petitioners directly supported Crosland’s act itself.
“Do we really live such a sheltered life that it destroys our faith in humanity to see an animal eat another animal?” one wrote. “This happens all over the world folks. Animals eat each other. Humans do it to. We just typically pay someone to do the dirty work for us.”
“Worldwide even people eat dogs, cats, and other meat food sources,” wrote another. “Sounds to me like this man is a dynamic teacher, teaching kids the greatness of life as well as some of the harsh realities. Keep up the great work. You are the kind of teacher our society needs.”
The Preston School District issued a statement saying the “regrettable” feeding “occurred well after students had been dismissed and was not a part of any school directed program” and that officials were “taking steps to ensure that this type of action could not be repeated.”
But, the district also added, “We hope that any errors in judgment made by a teacher in this instance will not cause us to forget the years of care, effort, and passion the teacher has given to students in Preston School District.”
Crosland did not respond to a message seeking comment. In an email, Supt. Marc Gee wrote that “at this time the district does not have further comment on the topic until the local prosecuting attorney and police have finished their investigation.”
Franklin County prosecutor Vic A. Pearson recused himself from the investigation, citing an unspecified conflict of interest.
Pearson did not respond to a request for comment, but he issued a statement asking the public for patience: “The volume of calls being received by both law enforcement and my office is hindering our ability to complete what needs to be done to reach the end goal of justice in this case.”
The law does not appear to be on Crosland’s side.
Idaho’s statutes on animal abuse forbid the “intentional and malicious” infliction of death on animals and “needless suffering” and “unnecessary cruelty.” Euthanasia is required to be “humane.”
“I don’t see any exemptions under our state’s animal cruelty codes to indicate that it was OK for a person to kill a puppy by allowing another animal to eat it,” said Jeff Rosenthal, a veterinarian and the chief executive of the Idaho Humane Society.
“Whether it’s food animal production, research, companion animals, there’s a fundamental responsibility to avoid any unnecessary suffering of an animal,” he said.
“If this was a person who took a puppy and ripped it apart, he would clearly be guilty of animal cruelty; if he took a puppy and drowned it, he would be guilty of animal cruelty,” Rosenthal said. “I don’t think it was necessary to teach anything to these children that was gained by feeding a live puppy to a turtle. We don’t teach hypothermia in physiology class by putting kittens in a freezer.”
Matt Pearce is a national reporter for The Times. Follow him on Twitter at @mattdpearce