An Outsized Outrage?

Public Response To Burned Puppy Creates Debate Over Value Of Life

June 12, 2009|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Veda "Pat" Allen was certainly shocked, even disgusted, by what happened to Phoenix, the pit bull puppy doused with gasoline and then set on fire in Southwest Baltimore last month.

But the aftermath shocked her more, as people in the city and around the country shed tears, signed petitions, raged on blogs and raised more than $26,000 to find the dog's killers.

When her 22-year-old son was shot in the head in 1992 in what city police said was a motiveless crime, she wonders, where were these people with their outrage, their tears, their checks?

Over the past few weeks, as some people's hearts broke for the burned dog, and as they reached for their wallets to drive the Phoenix Reward Fund ever higher, others wondered just what was going on - particularly in a city where people die violently on almost a daily basis.

How could people feel so much for an animal, when they greet most deaths in town with a collective shrug of indifference?

"I think it's very disheartening when a dog's life is more valued than that of a human," says Allen, who still lives in the crime-ridden Northwest Baltimore neighborhood where her son died and leads a victims group called Survivors Against Violence Everywhere. "Twenty-six thousand dollars to find out who murdered a dog? Where are our priorities?"Daniel Buccino, a professor of psychotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital, thinks the sheer amount of crime in Baltimore, which has one of the nation's highest homicide rates, contributes to the gross disparity in reactions to the Phoenix case and other killings. People have become emotionally deadened to news of shootings, gang violence, young people killing each other, he says.

"But sometimes, when a dog is burned, or a child is killed ... some collective outrage is stirred," Buccino said.

It's not just Baltimore that feels so strongly about its animals. The nation was transfixed years ago after a California man flung a fluffy dog to its death in a road rage incident. And by Michael Vick's dog abuse, which included shooting, hanging and electrocuting pit bulls.

Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter Inc. is managing the Phoenix Reward Fund. BARCS Program Manager Debby Rahl isn't sure exactly how many people contributed, but she knows the organization is sending out more than 500 thank-you letters, so there were at least that many checks written. Another $12,000 was donated in Phoenix's name to the group's Franky Fund for abused animals.

Al Banthem, vice chairman of Baltimore Metro Crime Stoppers, the organization that raises reward money for tips that could lead to arrests, says the average reward for a homicide is $2,000 of which the public typically contributes "zero."

BARCS was stunned by people's response to Phoenix, Rahl says. "People were just amazed at the phone calls, the e-mails, the outpouring of concern across the country," she says, adding that even since this week's arrest of two juveniles in the case, calls continue to come in from people who want to make sure there's a conviction and that the pair are tried as adults.

Rahl isn't sure why a pit bull puppy could provoke this sort of response when the death of a person almost certainly wouldn't.

Or, as Joe Sviatko, a spokesman for State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy, who's responsible for prosecuting the city's homicides, puts it: "I'm wondering if the nice lady in California that had a vigil for the dog also had a vigil for the homicide victims in Baltimore. Did you ask her?"

Buccino thinks there's something about the fur, the wet nose, the innocent eyes that people can't resist.

"Dogs are cute, even pit bulls, and tug on audience's heart-strings."

Melissa Lehman, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Baltimore, was one of the many people who jumped at the chance to help Phoenix.

She went door to door in her neighborhood and collected at work to raise $225 for the reward fund. She then threw in a check herself so she could contribute an even $500. For Lehman, who volunteers at a dog shelter in Parkville, the motivation to get involved was the helplessness of the animal.

"At the risk of sounding uncaring, I think probably the general attitude is the people who are killing each other every day, every hour - people make that choice," she says. "People are just so tired of people in the city making those choices to be in gangs, making those choices to kill each other. This animal had no choice."

Allen acknowledges that her son, Everette Farmer Sr., might have led a less-than-exemplary life. But she doesn't think his guilty plea for possession of drugs and a gun means it's OK for people to devalue his life.

"It doesn't make any difference what my son may or may not have done," she says. "That does not mean his life isn't as important as a dog's."

Mark Huson, a database analyst who lives in Hampden, has a dog - an Australian shepherd named Spencer that he calls "the love of my life."

Still, he can't understand people's reaction to Phoenix.

"I'm all for catching the people. It was just that the reward went up to over 11 times what it would be for a human murder," he says. "It's a dog. It's not a person.

"It's happening 300-plus times a year in Baltimore to a person, and there's not that outrage. I personally hold human life more valuable than animal life."

Buccino wishes that the emotion Phoenix has brought out in Baltimore could also be somehow trained on the city's homicide rate or its chronic homelessness.

"If every one of the hundreds of homicides in Baltimore got the same kind of media coverage that the burned pit bull puppy got," he says, "we may be able to sustain some outrage about the human carnage on our streets."

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