A frozen heart: A dog left outside in freezing temperatures, frustrated neighbors and a city agency that can’t seem to help

There’s a dog that’s been stuck in a small fenced-in area in freezing temperatures, snow and wind, and even with the continual efforts of a group of neighbors, neither the homeowner, the dog’s owner nor the city has changed the dog’s situation.

(3pm 1/9: Update at bottom of article. Plus, help change DC laws...)

This isn’t a happy story, and it’s certainly not a simple one. There’s many players involved, and it seems, many victims. There’s the people who live at the house where the dog is kept, but don’t actually own or care for the dog. There’s the person who does own the dog and keeps her at the house, but he doesn’t live there. There’s the neighbors who are trying so damn hard to save this dog from misery. And there’s an overworked, under-funded, spread-too-thin non-profit that doesn’t seem to be able do the job it says it wants to do. 

“Momma” is a young Pit Bull that lives in a shoddy wooden box that only someone cruel would call a "dog house." She lives in this box in a small fenced-in dog pen in the back of a house on the 1300 block of Randolph Street NW. Someone had spread straw over the recent snow in the fenced in area, but there's no flap or door on the box to stop the wind, rain or snow from coming in. The water “bowl” is an orange bucket, frozen solid. There are remnants of what might have once been a food bowl, now chewed up, with no food out. There's feces around the area. The unopened bag of food outside the fence is covered in snow, meaning it hasn't been touched more than two days after the snow fell. 

Momma greeting us with a whine, shivering in the freezing weather

When you approach Momma, she comes out of the small box with a tail that wants to wag. Her eyes are open and playful, but she’s also hunched over, shivering. She has almost no body fat. She yips and puts her face to the fence looking for a small treat that she knows comes from the neighbors once or sometimes twice a day. She’s shaking, her feet dancing on the cold, icy ground — the same ground she defecates on, if the droppings near her box are any indication. You can see her turn around, nosing the ground looking for food, licking the ice. All I can think is she seems hungry and thirsty. 

Well, that’s not true, what I think is who leaves a dog outside like this? Who looks out their frozen window and turns a blind eye?

I met with concerned neighbors on Sunday afternoon, neighbors who have worked for two years to find a way to stop what they consider to be animal abuse of Momma and previous dogs kept at the property. The level of investigation they’ve done is staggering. They have Google documents filled with details on the homeowners and the dog's owner and the past legal issues and convictions of some of them, as well as details on the DC laws surrounding animal welfare. They have email threads, text messages and more from DC agencies, MPD, the Mayor’s office, Councilmembers and others. They've tried talking with the homeowners, but nothing seems to work. 

The present issue with the house on Randolph Street started a few years ago as neighbors dealt with rampant prostitution and drug dealing on the block and in the alley. Multiple calls to MPD, meetings with ANC commissioners, emails to listservs and the DC Council offered some attention, but no long-term solution. The neighbors are reticent to be too public — they're scared of the dog's owner and the homeowners, due to their past legal history; some of the people involved with the house and the man who owns Momma have serious criminal records. According to a neighbor, earlier this past year a group of people walked past the house of one of the concerned neighbors and threatened him with violence for being a “snitch.” 

The alleged mistreatment of the dogs at the house was first reported to the city last March, when a similar-looking female Pit Bull mix named “Princess” lived in the dog pen in only a plastic travel dog crate, left unprotected from the elements.

(In the photos above, "Princess" is seen in the spring of 2016 looking extremely thin and living in a travel crate unprotected from the weather. The food bowl was, according to neighbors, filled only with dirty water, while the water bowl was empty. Pictures courtesy of neighbors.)

Neighbors witnessed the poor condition of the dog and offered the homeowner food and supplies. When Princess’ condition didn’t improve and she was found wandering around the alley, they contacted the Humane Society (now the Humane Rescue Alliance) who seemed surprised to see Princess, as she had been sent home the night before with the owner, who said he was taking her to Maryland. Instead, she was found back in the alley the next day. 

After more complaints by the neighbors about Princess’ worsening condition, the neighbors were told by Humane Law Enforcement officers to stop helping the dog. The food and bedding they kept providing, they were told, were making it impossible to remove the dog from the home for violations. When they stopped providing food for the dog, Princess disappeared. A few months later in August of 2016, Momma showed up to take her place. 

The Humane Rescue Alliance is the new organization created after the merger of the Washington Humane Society and the Washington Animal Rescue League, and they’re contracted by DC to serve the city for abandoned and mistreated pets and animals. But it seems they’re stretched too thin, with too many abuse complaints coming in, and too little resources to help them all as fully as they might want to. There are only five Humane Law Enforcement officers who serve the District, five who investigate hundreds of reports of dogs left out in the cold and other animals being mistreated. This weekend, for example, there was only one officer available for the entire city, according to that officer. Their backlog, especially during winter, is huge and can cause delays, according to an Animal Control Officer who responded to a neighbor’s Facebook post on Momma's condition. 

“We have tried to be transparent with everything we’re doing, and to do what we’re asked,” one of the concerned neighbors told me as we talked through everything they’ve done and documented in their effort to alleviate the treatment of the animals. “We don’t want to appear like we’re harassing anyone, we just want the dog safe.”

“We’ve gone through the appropriate channels,” another neighbor said as we reviewed the emails and the long history of meetings. “We can’t seem to get consistent information on what the legal requirements are, as the DC Code that covers cruelty to animals is not clear. We’re frustrated,” she said. “We want measurable standards for the treatment of animals. And if keeping animals in this condition is acceptable by the code, we want to see the code changed.”

Neighbors are frustrated because they’re told the conditions that first Princess and now Momma are living in meet the minimum requirements of DC Code 22-1001 — yet they can’t seem to figure out what those minimum requirements are, as they are told different things, sometimes by the same officer.

DC Code § 22–1001 (a) (1) states that, "Whoever knowingly...or unnecessarily fails to provide...proper food, drink, air, light, space, veterinary care, shelter, or protection from the weather, shall for every such offense be punished by imprisonment in jail not exceeding 180 days, or by fine not exceeding $250, or by both."

The neighbors have been told that if an animal is kept outside longer than 30 minutes in freezing temperatures then Humane Law Enforcement officers can take action. And in fact, officers did take action in mid-December when Momma was found outside, and she was temporarily brought inside. Back then, it wasn't freezing out. Now, they’re being told by HLE officers that they’re no longer investigating this property, while the temperature, with windchill, was 9 degrees Fahrenheit. As of Monday morning, the dog had been outside in below-freezing temperatures for more than 72 hours.

The neighbors continue to plead the dog’s case with city administrators and agencies, and emails were continuing to fly back and forth as of Sunday night between neighbors and representatives from the Mayor’s office. 

Momma outside in temperatures that are below freezing.

What the neighbors want is Momma taken to a safe home, and emergency legislation passed that will strengthen the laws surrounding animal welfare. They made a point of saying that don't want to harass the homeowners, they want the laws clarified so that situations like this no longer happen. 

On the way home from meeting with the neighbors and meeting Momma, I saw someone walking another brown Pit Bull, this one on a leash with a stick in its mouth and its tail wagging as they walked down the street. The contrast of this happy dog with what I saw when I visited Momma was striking, and that night, when the windchill was 5 degrees, all I could do was think about Momma shivering. It's hard not to judge the owners, no matter if conditions meet the legally acceptable requirements.

UPDATE 3pm 1/09:

As of a little after 1pm ET, one of the residents of the house was arrested by MPD (almost certainly for an unrelated issue). Momma's owner was seen (and videotaped) arriving just after the arrest and taking the dog around the block and into the residence. So, good news is Momma is out of the cold, we just don't know the disposition of the dog, nor next steps to ensure this doesn't continue. In the end, DC needs better animal welfare laws and more resources for the Humane Rescue Alliance so they can do their work.

However, I do want to urge people NOT to try to visit the dog, feed the dog, rescue the dog, harass the owner or interfere with DC government officials who are trying to resolve the issue amicably for all parties, including Momma.

Statement from Humane Rescue Alliance:

The Humane Rescue Alliance and our humane law enforcement team has been actively monitoring the dog on Randolph Street and until today we were in regular contact with the dog’s owner. It is our understanding that the owner of the home where the dog was being sheltered was arrested this afternoon (apparently unrelated to the animal). The owner of the dog has subsequently removed her from her outdoor shelter and we are trying to determine the whereabouts of the dog and her owner.

As difficult as the video was to watch, people should understand that this situation with the dog’s shelter does not violate District law; the dog had shelter, in a wooden structure that is raised with straw bedding; the dog was being fed and given water.

Because this did not violate the law, we were limited as to what actions we could take. People should rest assured that when laws are violated, we seize animals. In fact, during this past weekend, we have seized two dogs from two different locations who were being kept outside without proper shelter. We constantly advise pet owners to bring their animals inside during extreme temperatures, and urged this dog’s owner to do just that repeatedly. We are continuing to closely monitor this developing situation.

If you see something, say something. To report suspected abuse or neglect, please call 202-723-5730.

If you want to help animals in similar situations, you can contact Mayor Bowser and the DC Council, including Brandon Todd who is the Ward 4 Councilmember. Neighbors believe Emergency Legislation by the DC Council can help — and certainly more public attention will help. 

Read this latest article about how to help, then contact the groups below.

A reader posted an example email that can be sent, and I thought it was worth reposting:

I am a constituent and I urgently need your help. 

There is a severe case of animal abuse happening in our city and we need you to intervene. "Momma" has been living outside in these freezing temperatures for over 72 hours and it seems that the Humane Rescue Alliance is unable to take further action without your help. (You can read more about this animal here: https://www.petworthnews.org/blog/frozen-heart.)

In addition to helping Momma, I encourage you to pass emergency legislation to help other animals out in the cold so this never happens again. 

Thank you for your support. I look forward to hearing your response regarding this situation.

(h/t Meredith)

    Editorial Note: Names of all parties involved were omitted for privacy reasons.

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