Both inspiring and by turns horrifying, this story involves a unique service animal whose behavior decimates the pathetic argument from extremist vegans that “animals are not ours to use.”
Yes they are, and this story demonstrates why that’s a good thing.
The account was published this week in The Herald newspaper in Everett, Wash., and it is eye-opening. Here’s how it began:
“Last fall an 11-year-old girl sat in a Snohomish County courtroom recounting how she repeatedly was whipped with electrical cords, burned with lit cigarettes and starved for days. It took the child two hours to detail all the abuse she suffered at the hands of the woman who was supposed to care for her.”
But the girl didn’t have to testify all by herself on the witness stand. She had a friend with her.
Her friend was an 80-pound black Lab named Stilson, who lay at her feet during her testimony.
“For two hours, Stilson held command, not moving or making a sound,” the story continued. “He didn’t even stir when the defense attorney accidentally knocked over a cup of water on the witness stand.He was there to offer a brave girl some comfort, to remind her that she wasn’t alone and to reassure her that she was safe.”
Other than the awful circumstances surrounding the child’s testimony—and she was only one of many over the years that Stilson’s been on duty—it all feels so warm and fuzzy. A dog befriends young children and helps them through a crisis. What could be more heartwarming?
But there’s more to the story.
As the article related, Stilson is retiring today after several years of service. His handler and owner, Heidi Potter, who is Snohomish County’s lead victim-witness advocate, is leaving the prosecutor's office and moving to California. And where she goes, Stilson goes.
That’s probably a good thing, because his duties, valuable as they may be, took a real toll.
“He's burned out,” Potter said. “He’s almost 9 years old, and he’s worked with hundreds of children. He’s had hundreds of kids crying on him and climbing on him. It’s time for him just to be a dog. It’s time for him not to always be on his best behavior.”
Hard work and toil
Isn’t that the argument anti-livestock crusaders typically roll out? That any existence for animals, other than some fairy-tale life of freedom and frolic in a Disney-esque woodland or meadow, is exploitation.
That, and the idea that putting animals to work is somehow an affront to Nature.
In Stilson’s case, he had to work very hard, not only while “on duty but even to get to where he could be used as a comfort for scared, traumatized children.”
In this case, Potter told her boss she was interested in getting paired up with a service dog. She had to agree to undergo extensive training while the dog lived with her full time, and she’d have to pay for his food and medical bills.
Stilson’s commitment was even more rigorous.
Volunteer puppy trainers begin working with potential service dogs when they’re only a couple months old, teaching them basic obedience, exposing them to crowds in malls and restaurants. Then, the dogs are sent for extensive, professional training until they’re two years old, at which point they can be matched with a handler.
Not only does the dog—and the handler—have to pass training with flying colors, there has to be a bond between the two for the dogs to be able to respond to what are often stressful, confusing situations.
For example: Stilson was initially trained to accompany a person with disabilities, but one time he broke away to go “buddy up” to another dog, and it was decided he’d better suited for what became his “career” in the prosecutor’s office.
“He was the kind of dog that wanted to love on people,” Potter told the newspaper. “He was willing to receive their stress and let it go.”
He’d nuzzle up to kids on the couch, she said, and children would pet him and giggle with him. Some children talked directly to Stilson about the abuse they had suffered.
But Potter related that after spending all day with these children, Stilson often would be dead tired. “He’d eat dinner and sleep the rest of the night,” she said. “He absorbed the grief and hurt.”
Now, she said, “He deserves to just be a dog for the last few years of his life.”
Is that fair, putting a dog to work in a demanding role, keeping him from being “just a dog?”
Many animal rights advocates would say no—more likely, hell no!
But if Stilson could talk, I’m guessing he’d say he was glad to have provided comfort to kids who desperately needed it, happy to help make some of the most stressful criminal proceedings imaginable a little less so.
I’m guessing he’d say he contributed something meaningful, regardless of the toll it took on him.
Aren’t animal activists always making that argument, that “dogs and cats and cows are people,” just like us?
If so, then Stilson is one of many dedicated “people” working in the court system to bring some justice to those bleak and depressing child-abuse cases.
He deserves our respect and gratitude—as do his human handlers—and you can file his story as Exhibit A why the “just leave animals alone” approach is so wrongheaded.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.