The Other Barkleys Paws celebre: The outpouring of concern for one mistreated dog doesn't transfer to the thousands of abandoned animals just like him.

January 08, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

The dog in cage No. 12 at the Baltimore County animal shelter is a striking Siberian husky, not quite a year old. Her pale blue eyes stare steadily through the mesh door as she cries mournfully to be petted.

"I figure we've got about $1,000 in purebred dogs just along this row," says shelter manager Gayle Saunders. The husky's fellow prisoners include a golden Lab, a huge German shepherd, two English cocker spaniels, a chow, and a disheveled white poodle that looks, as one county worker wryly notes, like a stunned college kid waking up in the drunk tank. Oh, and a stocky Dalmatian across the way. "Make that $1,500 in purebreds," Ms. Saunders amends.

Not long ago, the occupant of cage No. 12 was the most famous dog in all of Baltimore: Barkley.

The Chesapeake Bay retriever spent a month here from mid-November to mid-December after his owner, Scott Eckrote, took him for "a walk" by having him run alongside a moving car.

When a neighbor complained, Mr. Eck

rote was arrested on charges of animal cruelty and marijuana possession; Barkley ended up here.

Barkley's photo, which ran in this newspaper and on local television stations, showed a handsome, well-kept dog with a blue kerchief around his neck and bandages on his front paws.

Barkley was cute. Barkley was in trouble. Barkley was hot -- and his 25-year-old owner was public enemy No. 1. One letter writer threatened to blow up his car, just one of many violence-laden missives that forced Mr. Eckrote virtually into hiding.

Meanwhile, more than 50 people called the Baltimore County shelter, asking to adopt Barkley. Others dropped by, bringing toys and treats for Barkley. Barkley, Barkley, Barkley.

The shelter workers joked that they should use the dog for fund-raising. Maybe sell lottery tickets for chances to adopt Barkley, if his owner wasn't allowed to keep him. Or how about a Barkley T-shirt?

Then a judge sent Barkley home from the shelter, and the public's interest in the Manor Road facility ended abruptly. Those who had called about adopting Barkley were uninterested in the other dogs that needed homes. There were no more toys and no more treats, just business as usual.

And business as usual at the county shelter -- which places an estimated 1,300 animals for adoption each year while euthanizing thousands of others who are simply too old, too sick or too aggressive to find homes -- can be pretty heartbreaking. According to figures collected last year by the Maryland Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 11 shelters in the Baltimore metropolitan area took in more than 75,000 animals in 1995. Of those, fewer than 12,000 were adopted.

Not all the animals received are adoptable, and some are dead when they arrive. The numbers also don't reflect lost animals reunited with their owners. But thousands of dogs and cats are brought to shelters specifically to die, by owners with breathtakingly casual reasons.

On this particular day, for example, the Baltimore County shelter has a German shepherd puppy, a bouncy dog with large brown %% eyes and huge feet. The owner, a college student, had to give him up -- he was going to Florida for the winter break.

In the face of all this day-to-day misery, why did Barkley's sore paws create such a furor?

"I think that the best explanation is that Barkley has a personal identity," says Dr. James P. McGee, a psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital in Towson, who often comments on our collective psyche. People "saw a picture, they know what he looks like, he has a certain reality, whereas the other 60 dogs [in the shelter] are all anonymous, and there's no personal connection."

All for one

It's not the first time people have responded to the specific, as opposed to the generic, in an animal abuse case.

In recent years, we've had Pasado the donkey, tortured and hanged from a tree in Washington state, and Keiko the whale, trapped in a too-small Mexican tank after his film debut in "Free Willy." The real-life whale is too sick to be freed, but the public outcry helped get him to a new, better home in Oregon.

Last month, newspapers throughout the country carried a story about a Florida man who beat a dog to death after it kept him awake nights.

Before the judge sentenced the man to 9 1/2 years in prison, he marveled at the public's outrage over the death of a dog.

"I wish the community would show the same fervent interest for other cases child abuse, spouse abuse, abuse of the elderly," the judge said. "Unfortunately, perhaps we as a society accept violence toward people more than we do violence toward pets."

Those who work with animals don't necessarily agree there's "fervent interest" in animal abuse. True, people can be galvanized by one incident, especially if there are photographs, or if the animal has a name. But the brief outrage seldom translates into action, whether it's a cash contribution to the SPCA or an increase in the number of animals neutered annually.

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