When Matthew Jerome was sentenced to a year behind bars in January for deliberately setting fire to the whiskers and paws of an adorable 6-month-old kitten named Sparkle, few would argue that he was not guilty of torturing an animal.
When Larry Darnell Knox was sentenced to a year in prison this week for repeatedly kicking a stray cat in the head after the animal entered his home and refused to leave, few would have suggested that his response – however unpremeditated – was not unnecessarily brutal.
But is it cruel for a private citizen to shoot an obviously sick raccoon that may – or may not – pose a threat to nearby residents? Animal-control officials and the 67-year old Fort Wayne man who was fined more than $400 for pulling the trigger have good reasons for answering that question differently, but it seems to me the city has the stronger argument.
James Sechler insists he was simply trying to be a good neighbor and responsible citizen when he grabbed his 22-caliber rifle and put its barrel to the head of a raccoon lying on the sidewalk near his Waynedale home in September 2012. His News-Sentinel carrier told him the normally nocturnal animal had been lying there for some time and was drawing a crowd, so Sechler – a hunting instructor for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources – took matters into his own hands to protect his neighbors.
“Kids were messing with it, so I walked over and gave it a boot. Its eyes were matted and its nose was running, so I shot it, took it home and put it in the trash. I know what a raccoon can do if it gets hold of you,” he said.
But that wasn't the end of the story. It was just the beginning.
Sechler didn't know it, but somebody had also called the city's Animal Care and Control Department. The officer arrived on the scene, was told what had happened and went to Sechler's home. It wasn't long before he had been charged with firing a gun within the city limits and with animal cruelty.
Even Sechler admits he was guilty of discharging his rifle unlawfully, and doesn't question the $141 fine. “But the other charge was ridiculous. I was trying to protect people,” he insists.
Animal Control Director Belinda Lewis doesn't question Sechler's motive. Just his judgment.
“It wasn't an emergency circumstance. We arrived minutes after we got the call. (Sechler's) not an investigator. He didn't gather information. He threw the raccoon in the garbage can,” she said – hardly the ideal response, she said, if the animal had a serious disease that could pose a wider threat.
Instead, Lewis and city attorney Larry Shine said, Sechler should have called Animal Control and kept people at a safe distance from the raccoon – believed to have had distemper – until the authorities arrived.
Lewis also points to a cell-phone video of the incident as proof that Sechler acted improperly. The footage shows that the raccoon continued to move – presumably suffering, she and Shine said – for several seconds after being shot. Sechler's no-cruelty argument would have been stronger, she said, had he fired again and caused instant death.
“It wouldn't have made a difference. It was dead. Anybody who hunts knows a deer can run 100 yards after being shot,” he said. “If you think I'm going to shoot again on the sidewalk, it's not going to happen.”
Sechler was represented by Mitch Harper, a City Councilman and attorney, who said he's “very much against animal cruelty. Hang 'em high.” But Harper argued that city code does not define “cruelty” to animals. Eventually, the city reduced the charge to “improper euthanasia,” for which Sechler paid a $266 fine even though he insists the DNR supported his action and lists “gunshot” among its accepted methods of euthanasia.
That was done so Sechler could remain a DNR instructor, said Lewis, who pointed out that DNR regulations also state that firearms may be used only where it is “safe and legal” to do so, and local laws and regulations regarding the . . . discharge of firearms must be complied with.” In addition, local code states that “only persons trained in humane procedures by licensed veterinarians or by registered animal technicians shall perform the destruction of animals in a human manner.”
“We have honest-to-god criminals, and (officials) won't touch them,” said Sechler, who brought his case to my attention after reading about Knox's conviction, which was handled in person by County Prosecutor Karen Richards – heavy artillery indeed for a relatively minor crime.
Sechler should not be compared to Jerome or Knox. But his public-minded impulse could have – and should have – been channeled in a way that would have protected others without exposing them to possible discomfort, or himself to legal liability.
Using guns on the street, as we have seen far too many times, is seldom the best solution to a problem.