By Dan Meadows
I had a magazine once, for a short time. Some of you may remember it, Pet Companions Magazine. We wrote about all sorts of pet-related issues, both serious and not so. Dog biscuit recipes, books on animal topics, articles about animal welfare issues, and most importantly, a big, two-page list of rescues and shelters of all kinds in this region. I even gave away the back cover, the most prime area of real estate in each issue, to a different rescue or shelter every month. We had money in the bank, issues on the street, and people knew the name. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with smiles and folks would tell me how much they looked forward to the new edition, and how excited they were to do the new crossword puzzle. I liked that part the best, I think. I spent two or three hours each month writing all the clues for that puzzle; people with names like animals, cars named after animals, and best of all, lots of questions about old cartoon character animals. I’ve always wanted to work Foghorn Leghorn into something I’ve done. Well, that’s one life’s dream satisfied, anyway.
But now its gone, sucked away in the great fiscal hurricane of 2008, and all that’s left behind is the rubble of collection notices and former friends. Some days, I don’t even miss it. There’s something oddly compelling in getting up, going to work, putting in your eight hours and heading home to start all over again. No decisions to be made more important than whether or not I need gas, no thoughts required short of what I need to get through. But most days, it kills me.
I see things everywhere that remind me of what I used to have. I run across a stack of flyers about a vaccine clinic nearby and by reflex, I grab one hungrily, thinking that I can use that information later before it dawns on me that I no longer have any real use for it and put it back. Let someone that needs it have it. Every store I go in, I grab up all the free magazines at the door and scan over them in the car, scoping out the ads, still seeking out potential leads for nonexistent salespeople for an issue that isn’t going to happen. It’s like a ghost, and the deadlines that never happened still haunt me.
Then this SPCA thing broke. At first I tried to ignore it, and keep my distance. I had more important things to worry about, I convinced myself, like how I was going to pay for dinner that night. But as the days wore on and the accusations progressed from the obscene to the sadistic, I just couldn’t avert my eyes any longer. And I felt the hollow, empty feeling of being voiceless. If only I still had my magazine, I would be all over this, I thought. The Whig doesn’t want to talk to the State’s Attorney? Well, I do. They don’t want to talk to Mike Smigiel? I do. They don’t want to talk to the accusers? I do. Hell, I especially want to talk to the accused. I would report on this as no one’s ever reported on anything before in the history of the printed word, if only I still had my magazine.
So instead, I watched from my perch leaning against a mop handle in the vet’s office from which I now draw a modest salary. Between appointments, I would sneak looks at Smigiel’s Blog for the latest postings, following entire conversations through the comments sections, clicking on each new link to absorb every small scrap of information, living vicariously through the others who still had their megaphones, who could still have their words heard.
As the story moved from accusation to investigation, I kept track of the players. Mike Smigiel, the Delegate with the army of animal-loving supporters pushing him forward. Nancy Schwerzler, the wicked witch of South Chesapeake City and her evil, animal slaughtering minions. And in the middle, the county commissioners, namely Commissioner Hodge, desperately, and in very-Swiss fashion, trying to carve out a solid neutral-ground to no one’s satisfaction in particular. At least, that’s the way it looked. The coverage was all slanted. The Whig routinely trumpeted traditional powers and their words, Smigiel’s followers doing the opposite, instead playing up anti-SPCA sentiment at every turn.
With a list of allegations that looked like something out of a horror movie, it was very easy to see this situation as black and white, good vs. evil. But is it, really? Are the good guys really wearing white, selflessly rushing headlong to save the poor, defenseless little creatures or are there other, more self-serving ends being perpetrated here under the guise of pursuing justice? Are the bad guys really decked out in black and running an Animal Auschwitz just beyond the C&D Canal, laughing insanely as they twirl their mustaches and torture little kittens or are they just people caught up in a whirlwind where a bad day’s mistreatment of a starving dog that growls at you shows up on the net as burning innocent puppies alive while roasting marshmallows in the flames?
Who knows? After everything I’ve seen, heard and read, all the sometimes gory details, I don’t truly know. I suspect more than a few things, but that’s a far cry from certainty. And I wish I could say let’s all just wait for the investigations to wrap up and see what they say, but my confidence that any satisfying result will occur from the inevitable reports is negligible. Even if the allegations are all true, they’re just words and unless the people at the SPCA were stupid and negligent as well as callous, there’s not going to be any verifiable evidence lying around. And anything short of an indictment is not going to induce significant turnover at the much-maligned facility. They’re digging their heels in for a siege for a reason. They know that we need them, they have the county over a barrel and, after all the pomp and bluster, the commissioners have no real options but to once again cut that $700,000 check this year. And, in time, when the police and the protesters have gone home, and the people have stopped checking the blogs every day, they believe that they will still be standing, still be handling animal control in Cecil County.
To those certain of their guilt, it’ll be a travesty that will infuriate you. To those who aren’t so certain, it’ll be a slight vindication. In any event, it won’t be satisfying because no one will really know the truth other than those who were there. But the crowds will fade, the attention will shift elsewhere and it will be gone. All that time at the computer, all those meetings, all those hours spent in the cold holding picket signs will seem to have had no purpose. Do you let it go, go back to work on Monday morning and lose that passion, that energy inside a dulling routine? I tried to.
But I can’t let it go. When I lost my magazine, I denied it for almost two months. I kept applying for every loan, credit card or line of credit I could, even though I knew that Osama Bin Laden had a better shot of getting bank financing than I did. I started getting stuff together for a website, I kept checking out hosting fees, and reading up on web design. It really wasn’t gone, I was on hiatus. Yeah, that was it. And I refused to get a job. I was the Publisher of Pet Companions Magazine, dammit, and I was going to save this and I didn’t care what anyone said. Then finally, after spending my last three dollars on a loaf of bread and some breath mints, I admitted to myself that it was truly gone.
So I broke down and got a job. I scraped by, shivering all the way-heat’s expensive, you know-and I tried to forget. It worked for a while, a very brief while, but this entire sordid affair has just served to remind me that I can’t forget. I’ll get it back, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, and never again in the way that it was, but it will be back. I’m not letting it go, even if I end up sleeping in my car eating cold beans out of a can with nothing but a box Clint Eastwood DVDs in the trunk, I won’t let it go.
You all gathered together, brought out large crowds to commissioner’s meetings, brought the attention of big local media to our little backwater, caused a sizable, connected agency to suffer the indignity of a police investigation, among other things, and raised attention to the treatment of animals in shelters everywhere. And you did it yourselves. The politicians didn’t do it for you, the media didn’t do it for you, it was your collective voices that made things happen.
But soon, those things will pass. The media will move on to the next big story, the politicians will find some other pressing issue to tackle and no matter what comes of any of this, we’ll still be left with the problems of too many unwanted animals and too few options for their survival. Whether or not this reaches the conclusion you want and worked so hard for, the reality is that it will pass, probably sooner than later. And when this is done, will you drift back into routine life, succeed or fail, and leave this, the fates of these animals, to the devices and motivations of others again? You found that passion once, summoned up that energy to expose something awful, do you keep that going or just walk away when the spotlight shines elsewhere? You gathered together in numbers to make yourselves heard, just imagine what else you could do.
Whether or not this results in changes at the SPCA, it is abundantly clear that there are just too many animals out there and not enough homes. What we really need is another shelter in Cecil County, if only to help with the volume of animals and save the lives of these creatures who might otherwise be caught up and purged in our imperfect system. It wouldn’t be easy, and anyone taking it on would constantly be scrounging for money, and forced to make choices more difficult that you could probably imagine now, but wouldn’t it be worth it? If the SPCA cleans up its act, two shelters are better than one. Or failing that, a real option to the SPCA can’t be a bad thing. Is it enough to pressure our elected representatives to do right by these animals, or could you do it yourself, for some, at least?
We all too frequently rely on others to take care of our problems for us. We want the Commissioners to fix this and, perhaps inevitably, we’ll be let down. And all the words in the world won’t save one animal’s life. But maybe there’s a better way. Nothing is ever so satisfying as something you do for yourself. And it doesn’t have to be a grand, ambitious gesture like founding a shelter. Adopt a dog or a cat, become a foster home for a rescue, or start a rescue of your own. There are a great many groups out there whose goals are to be there for these animals, and they’re all badly in need of assistance. Not everyone benefits from cushy government contracts like the SPCA does. When this tragedy eventually passes, however it turns out, help from all of you, all of your energy is still very much needed. Don’t let it go. I’m not going to.
Dan Meadows is a writer, editor and publisher with over a decade’s experience and a track record of success in nearly every aspect of the publishing industry who had a jar of applesauce for dinner last night. Anyone, anywhere currently hiring can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.