I live in the country, far from any town, and several months ago, my rural nightmare came true.
Late one night, I heard two pick-up trucks pull into the vacant, wooded property across the road from my house. After a time, the trucks departed — and an onslaught of barking started. It sounded like five, maybe six hounds. I waited for their mangled, agonized yelps to die down. They didn’t. The barking continued through the next day and the entire weekend.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to know what was going on: did someone abandon their animals on the vacant lot across the road? Who would do such a thing?
I gathered up my kids in the car and we drove over to the property. Sure enough, someone had built a kennel for their five dogs. There was insufficient shade and no food. There was water, but only because we’d had a torrential downpour.
I didn’t know what to do, so I called the sheriff, a casual friend. He sent Animal Control to the site … who just happened to bump into the dogs’ owner, there checking up on the dogs. The owner, surprised, wanted to know who had made the complaint; Animal Control, not wanting to rat me out, told him the call had come from the sheriff’s office.
Shockingly, the owner wasn’t in violation of animal welfare laws. It was deemed the dogs were being sufficiently cared for — which tells you something about this country’s animal welfare laws. It is entirely legal to confine animals to cages 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with zero exercise and severely limited human interaction. The owners don’t even have to live anywhere nearby. When I expressed my frustration over this to the sheriff, he agreed wholeheartedly, and pointed out that at least now Animal Control knows the dogs are there and will check in on them whenever they make their rounds.
My hands were tied. There was nothing I could do. Friends suggested I sneak over to the property and let the dogs out, but I didn’t want to break the law. Noise ordinances do not exist in this particular county, so I had no choice but to live with it, to endure every single pitiful bark of these neglected animals.
My children and I stopped playing outside. I quit gardening. I began hearing phantom barks in the shower, while I listened to the radio, while I tried to read. I was going crazy. I began to despise the dogs’ owner. I wanted to destroy him.
“AAAAAND you’re losing it,” a friend finally told me after I’d explained my latest revenge fantasy. “Look, why don’t you just be an adult and engage him? Try to open up a dialogue.”
As much as I hated to admit it, “opening up a dialogue” (gah! Corporate speak alert!) was probably a good idea — even though strewing my trash across his property seemed like so much more fun.
So one day not long after, I heard a rumbling pick-up pull into the property and ran as fast as I could down to the edge of the driveway. I waited … and waited … and waited for the truck to drive back down to the road.
As expected, the owner looked like the kind of guy you associate with the show Cops. And I’m not talking about the law enforcement side of the program. I’m talking shirtless, hollow-eyed, pock-marked and mean, with yesterday’s burrito still smeared on his chin.
Despite the giant pit in my stomach the size of a meteorite, I plastered a big, cheesy smile on my face, waved spastically, and approached his truck. And what did he do? He spit a wad of chewing tobacco on the asphalt, glared at me, and sped away.
This went on for weeks. I waved, he spat. At times it felt like I was stalking him, but I had to discuss the situation with him. I even thought about offering to walk his dogs in the slim chance it would make him see it’s not okay to confine them to cages 24 hours a day.
The problem with not discussing a difficult situation is that hatred, paranoia, fear, animosity, and colorful revenge fantasies tend to flower and grow into giant hairballs of destruction in the interim. The longer we went without talking, the more vividly I saw breaking his legs — wait, did I just write that?
And then one day, a miracle happened.
One of his dogs escaped the prison pen and made a beeline for my front door. It was a dopey, floppy-looking thing, but, to my pleasant surprise, well-fed and friendly.
I was faced with three choices: Do I do nothing and hope the dog runs away for good, hopefully into the arms of new, loving owners? Do I call the owner? Or do I call Animal Control to have the dog picked up and taken to the pound?
In the end, I called the owner. It was the correct thing, the adult thing to do (damn you, maturity!).
When I finally got him on the phone, I was excruciatingly kind. I heard myself say things like, “Oh, I do hope you end up moving into a house across the road from us! Having a neighbor would be TEE-rrific!” It was one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had, basically because I was lying the entire time: “Come over for burritos!”
He was irritated at me for ratting him out to the sheriff’s department, but grateful that I was looking out for his dog. My cheerio demeanor had the intended effect; I had disarmed him.
He explained a bit about his situation, and suffice to say, he hasn’t had an easy life. And sometimes, when you’ve had a rough life, you only know how to handle the world one of two ways: fight or flight. There is no middle ground. No nuance, negotiation, or discussion.
Dealing with this man and his dogs taught me something very important about the world: talking about volatile situations rationally and with kindness is extremely difficult.
It’s all too easy to avoid the issue or “get even” instead of fixing the problem at its core. It’s what a lot of people are used to. It’s not that they’re trying to be jerks necessarily, it’s just that it’s all they know — perhaps all they have been exposed to. But if you try fighting back with kindness and respect, the outcome may surprise you.
Although my neighbor did hang up on me, the dogs haven’t been an issue since we talked. They no longer bark for hours on end at night (the morning is another story, I’m afraid, but I can live with that). I don’t know what the owner did. I like to think that talking it over with me nudged the guilty part of his brain ever so slightly because two times now, I’ve seen him exit the property with a dog in the back of the truck, presumably to go hunting or for a walk.
I feel a million times better knowing the dogs do get out occasionally. They are well fed and their dispositions are friendly. Plus, the owner seems genuinely fond of his animals (in his limited, totally warped capacity).
It’s not a perfect situation, but who knows? Maybe opening the door to a relationship with my potential next-door neighbor might one day lead to a friendly discussion about responsible animal ownership. Baby steps.
In the meantime, at least I have my peace back.
*Editor’s note: This mom wishes to remain anonymous, so we’ve published this piece under a pseudonym.