In Cecil, a fight over man's best friend

SPCA: The animal protection group has proposed doing away with a sacred tradition: dogs riding in the backs of pickup trucks.

April 16, 1999|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

NORTH EAST -- It's tough to say whether dogs in Cecil County were made for the backs of pickup trucks or if the backs of pickup trucks were made for dogs. Whatever the answer, this much is sure: Pickup trucks and dogs were made for Cecil County.

Or were they?

Cecil's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has come up with a proposal that residents say would change the character of the area as much as filling the Upper Chesapeake Bay, the county's defining geography.

The proposal: Tongue-wagging cargo would be forbidden, man's best friend banned forever from the backs of pickup trucks unless they're tethered or caged.

For all the furor, the group may as well have proposed banning fishing poles or hunting rifles. "Some people don't have nothing to do but sit around and think up these crazy ideas," says Gene Howell, 75, who is rarely seen tooling around the county in his green GMC pickup without his black Labrador, Chief, bobbing in the truck's bed.

"I suppose what I could do is have my wife ride there in the back and let the dog ride up front with me," he says with a laugh. " 'Course, I don't know that my wife would stay back there like the dog does. The dog is trained."

The ban from pickup trucks is not the end of it. The prevention society is also calling for mandatory neutering and spaying of dogs and cats in the county. That has farmers and hunters in fits. An animal that is spayed or neutered, they argue, will not be as aggressive going after tasty rabbits or annoying rats.

But no dogs in the backs of pickups? That's the real controversy. May as well take the engine block from under the hood. The animals seem as much a fixture in Cecil pickups as cell phones in Federal Hill Volvos.

Jeanne Deeming, executive director of the prevention society in Cecil, has no quibbles with man or dog, but she says she cannot sit idly by while dogs such as Chief run the risk of flying out of pickups and into the paths of oncoming cars.

She asked the county's commissioners to adopt her proposals, she says, for the sake of the dogs -- and for any people they might decide to chase. Owners who do not abide could be fined $100. The commissioners have yet to schedule a vote on the matter.

"Anyone with any common sense knows that if you have a dog -- whether it's trained or not -- and it sees a squirrel or a bird, it's going to jump out of that truck and go after it," she says. "I understand that this is Cecil County and you kind of expect dogs in the back of trucks. But being Cecil County doesn't make it right."

Dogs elsewhere have already had to give up their truck beds.

Dogs have been banned from the backs of trucks in California, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The Oregon legislature is considering a bill similar to the Cecil proposal. Proponents base much of their argument on a report from the Humane Society of the United States that recorded 592 dog accidents during truck rides in one recent year.

"It's certainly not unheard of to see dogs injured from being thrown from a pickup," says Dr. Stuart Caplan, a veterinarian at the Animal Medical Center of Mount Washington. "We sure don't recommend dogs being in the back of trucks."

No amount of statistics or professional opinion, of course, is going to quell the controversy in Cecil County any time soon. This is a county of traditions. For generations, many residents, with their dogs, have hunted the land or fished in one of the five rivers running through its hills into the Chesapeake Bay.

"What's the harm?" asks Harry Hepbron, one of three Cecil County commissioners and decidedly against the ban. "You train a dog to ride in the back of a pickup when it's a puppy, and it'll never jump out. This is just how it is out here. You ride the dogs around, let them see squirrels and deer and whatever they want to see. They ain't going to jump out."

Herb Benjamin is 66 and has been dealing with fishermen, hunters and their dogs at Herb's Tackle Shop in North East for decades. These are not men and dogs easily separated from their pickup trucks, he says.

"There been dogs riding in trucks around here as long as I can remember," he says, raking his hands through a mound of dark dirt in his shop, pulling the fattest bloodworms to the side. "They're just like kids, those dogs. They like to ride more than they like to jump out. You don't ever see a dog jumping out of a pickup truck, even if there's another dog on the sidewalk barking at them."

Howell, with his lab, Chief, says there are more than enough regulations on the books right now. He has given up smoking cigarettes, given up stuffing his pipe and all but given up drinking alcohol. "Now they want me to give up my dog," he says. "I don't see it."

Pub Date: 4/16/99

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