In a suburban backyard in Fort Worth, TX, I learned an interesting film-making lesson: It’s hard to focus a camera when your eyes are welling with tears. I started rolling a half hour before. I had asked Cindy Boling simply, “Can you explain what happened?” From there she walked me and fellow filmmaker, Patrick Reasonover, from one end of her property to the other, not simply telling us what happened, but re-living it. If a police officer arrived at a wrong address — my address — and proceeded to shoot my dog simply for approaching him curiously, I suspect re-living that experience would be about the last thing I’d ever want to do. But Cindy was doing exactly that. Why? And why was I covered in camera gear recording it?
A film-making team and I were there to capture Cindy’s story for a documentary called PUPPYCIDE, centered around the frightening trend of law enforcement shooting pet dogs. But what exactly is PUPPYCIDE about? Since starting work on this film, I’ve heard that question a lot. I don’t have an easy answer and what I do have seems to be constantly evolving. It’s at once an issue, a collection of tragedies, a made up word we all wish didn’t exist. But foremost in my mind today, I’d say it’s a journey. One started over a year ago and, if our Kickstarter campaign succeeds, will be competed next year.
The project started when I came upon a YouTube clip of a man, James Smoak, kneeling next to his car beside a Nashville highway, screaming as an officer blasted his puppy in the face with a shotgun. Did I just see that?! It was like every dog owner’s greatest horror played out before me. Clearly an anomaly, I thought. Before I could even think it through, my fingers were typing “cop shoots dog” into the search engine. That began the seeing of things never to be unseen. And with them an internal voice saying something must be done to stop this.
I ran the idea by Patrick, the co-owner of our production company, Ozymandias Media. Together we then ran it by others. It’s funny; you can mention a social issue with the gravest of human implications and be met with a blank stare, but introduce someone to the idea that police are shooting our dogs and you get an incensed “This. Must. End!!” We knew we had to do something. So we started researching the issue and reaching out to victims.
You’d be hard pressed to investigate puppycides for more than 15 minutes and not encounter the name Cheye Calvo. He generously offered to open the doors to his home, where his dogs were shot, and let us capture his story. We took our cameras to Maryland where he walked us through the incident in every detail. A marijuana dealer shipped product to Cheye’s address where a 3rd party was supposed to pick it up off the porch before Cheye, a completely innocent bystander, became aware of it. I suspect the dealer didn’t ship it to the actual address of his recipient because it might result in a police raid on the property. He would have been right. Five minutes of researching the address would have shown the police that the home belonged the town’s mayor. Sadly, that research didn’t happen. So, the mayor’s home was raided and his two black labs, Payton and Chase, shot and killed. At a press conference following the tragedy, his wife Trinity, with tears in her eyes, recounted a little girl asking her, “If they can do this to your dogs, how can we ever trust them?”
Beyond the killing of pets, and traumatization of a family, it was clear that the police had an epic public relations problem on their hands and in all likelihood a lawsuit. We know that police departments very rarely apologize to victims for shooting their dogs. They certainly didn’t apologize to Cheye and Trinity. And in our interview with Cheye it became clear how broken the officer’s reasoning might be. Police don’t want to apologize because that would admit guilt, guilt that could invite a lawsuit. Standing in Cheye’s living room, he explained how he didn’t think he would have sued if they had simply apologized. Their denials of responsibility and accusations of his dogs’ aggression angered him, and the necropsy proved that at least in Chase’s case he was shot from behind while running away. It was this treatment that prompted Cheye to sue. I’m certain other victims feel the same. So, on balance, if a department kills a dog under questionable circumstances, they might do themselves quite the favor by following the simplest of playground rules, admit that what you did was wrong and say you are sorry. It would help the families recover, possibly spare the department a lawsuit, and most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
Our next interview brought us to Nashville and Radley Balko, an investigative journalist who writes for the Huffington Post. He was in the midst of writing the now released book, Rise of the Warrior Cop. Radley’s been examining and writing about police culture for years and pointed out to us that in the 1970’s, SWAT raids averaged between 200 and 300 annually. That has increased to 50,000 annually according to 2005 statistics, most of which are for non-violent crime. So, the increase in puppycides largely boils down to simple math: Police presence in homes increases + dogs presence in homes increases + a lack of non-lethal tools or training = an increasing trend in dogs shot by police. It seems natural that as these incidents have become more and more commonplace with SWAT that it has naturally spilled over into all other manner of policing; hence we see an increase in puppycides outside of SWAT situations.
Radley anecdotally mentioned his experiences discussing the 1993 Branch Davidian tragedy in Waco, TX, with people. Consistent with our own observation mentioned earlier, he said that when he spoke about how so many people died there, even children, he would be met with a tepid response. However, as soon as he brought up the killing of the dogs by the ATF, people were incensed. Some months later, I was having a conversation with David Thibodeau, one of the few survivors of the infamous fire, and he pointed out that in the TV movie, “Ambush at Waco,” the shooting of the dogs was fictionalized with a harmless blast of fire extinguishers. Think about that for a second. All manner of human carnage was about to be laid bare for the viewer, but it was the killing of dogs they saw unfit to broadcast.
This recurring theme suggested to me that PUPPYCIDE would meet one of my fundamental goals as a filmmaker: that my films tell an emotionally compelling story that will resonate with the audience. My other goal is that the film would stand a chance of making a positive difference and affect real change. So many documentaries have been made about social issues and have failed to achieve a clearly causal impact. We felt this would be different because the problem is so solvable, and yet continues only due to a public lack of awareness. In cities where an egregious puppycide has elevated public awareness, the result of that pressure has been changes in police policy. But those cities are few and far between and in each case some poor family’s dog has to be shot before the change takes place. With PUPPYCIDE we aim to create a film that can incite that same awareness at a national level without another dog being killed.
Help PUPPYCIDE and watch the trailer by visiting puppycide.com.
While in Nashville, we were also able to sit down with Mary Parker, the attorney that represented James Smoak in his lawsuit against the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Mary signed on to represent James after seeing the same video that impelled our documentary. She told us that she was angered to hear the THP claim the dog was a threat when the video so clearly showed otherwise. Smoak was awarded just over $210,000 in a jury trial, though the charges focused on the excessive force of the officers who threw James to the ground when he stood up in response to his shot dog — not the shooting of his dog itself.
Certainly, the Smoak video appeared to depict a callous officer, but was that the whole story? We really wanted some police perspective, so we met with Jim Osorio, a former cop who now trains police departments in how to deal with dogs non-lethally. It would be great if he was the busiest man in America, but that isn’t the case. Not yet anyway. He spoke to us at length about the difficulties police face in the split-seconds they often have to make a decision when they encounter a dog. Still, the threshold he described in which lethal force was justifiable was so high as to eliminate all but the most extreme of circumstances. When I asked him to speak specifically on the topic of the small dog incidents we’ve been hearing about he said this: “There’s no reason, no justification, no expert witness that is going to come to your aid if you have to kill an animal under 25 pounds.” He was efficient in his advice for those officers: “Find a career move.”
Since documentaries are films, and films are visual, many are made or not made depending on what video or film footage is available to help tell the story. That’s partly why this topic is ripe for documentary. The ubiquitousness of video cameras in phones, surveillance, and even police cars has made it increasingly common for puppycides to be caught on tape. We’ve heard Mary Parker’s story replayed in many other incidents where a shooting happens, the officer claims he was in grave danger from a vicious animal, and then a video surfaces. This is important because after you see several instances of video contradicting police reports, it tends to put all police reports into question. Leon Rosby’s dog Max was shot by Hawthorne, CA, police last summer. Video of the incident blew up the internet and days later the outraged community was protesting outside the HPD’s headquarters. We took our cameras there, talked to Leon and some of the protesters, and captured the sights and sounds. The crowd of at least a hundred gasped when Leon explained that Max did not die instantly, kicking in the street for hours, and yet police wouldn’t let the family get him. He claims they told him it was the scene of an investigation and not to be touched. This would be another shocking case of seeing somebody’s dog as ‘property’ or a ‘thing’ rather than a pet or someone’s family member. Many officers were stationed outside the building, presumably to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. They were polite to me when I asked if there was somebody with the department I could interview. Ultimately they declined to speak to me but I believe they would be willing to if I had a press credential and navigated their internal process to secure that interview. But doing that sort of thing can take up a lot of time and resources, that’s one of the reasons we are presently seeking funding to continue this project.
You might ask, if puppycides are happening so frequently, why aren’t we hearing more about it? I asked this question to a local reporter in Michigan and she explained to me that in her line of work she needed the cooperation of local police to do her job effectively. If one wishes to avoid becoming persona non grata with the men in blue, it becomes necessary to choose wisely what stories you report that paint them in a bad light. In practice this often becomes: Person shot – report; dog shot – don’t report. In my view, we, the citizens, are somewhat complicit in this as well. Incidents in which people are shot are oddly easier for us to hear about and yet we cower from the stories about the dogs. Wondering why this might be the case I think Cheye Calvo framed it best for us when he said, “dogs are born innocent.” However unjust the fate of a human might be, we just can’t help thinking “maybe they did something to deserve it.” Perhaps that is even a coping mechanism to process what we see as horrific. But with dogs that mechanism is taken away from us. Even a vicious dog, trained to guard drugs, has an innocence in our minds. After all, it was a human that trained the dog to do so. A human that put the dog in harms way. A human that got the animal shot. But it is also humans that can affect the change and end this.
Presently, there are two versions of the trailer to PUPPYCIDE that are watchable at puppycide.com. These are the demos we created so that now, as we ask people to help make this feature length film a reality, it will be clear that this will be a compelling work of high quality. The original trailer is different from the new one in that it contains graphic footage of dog shootings caught on tape. Some have asked me upon seeing it whether that footage is necessary to include. I believe it is. For this documentary to change anything, it must reach an audience beyond dog lovers and people naturally inclined to be outraged by these tragedies. It has to reach the skeptics, the cynics, the undecided, the curious, and even the haters. Should the film make them aware, or present them the issue in a new light, then the number of people wishing an end to puppycide grows. For many to find a police report of viciousness false they will literally need to see the event play out before their eyes so they can judge for themselves. It’s an interesting fact that some of the folks least likely to watch the documentary are those most fervent about seeing it made. More than a few empathetic souls out there have said to me, “I can’t watch your demo. I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch the documentary, but I’m definitely going to help you get it made.” As of this writing we have $35,000 in pledges, which is an incredible show of support that we greatly appreciate. However, if we don’t reach our goal of $100,000 by this Friday, all pledgers will get their money back and PUPPYCIDE will not be funded. So, this not being the best time for subtleties, I will simply ask that if you agree that this film can help make a change for the better please go to puppycide.com and pledge what you can.
Another common question I’ve been asked is how I can fathom wallowing in the sadness of this topic for the countless hours required to make a feature length documentary. It’s a good question and, believe me, I’ve often yearned for the day that I’ll become jaded and that I can finally work through an edit session without being caught by a particularly harsh dose of a reality that moves me to tears. However, I’m constantly aware that my sadness is nothing compared to that endured by those who have lost their furry family members. And odd as it may sound coming from a filmmaker immersed in puppycides, I actually consider myself very much an optimist. I will manage the experience of making PUPPYCIDE because this film is ultimately very hopeful and positive in many respects. There are victories to celebrate. Cheye Calvo’s lawsuit resulted in mandatory reporting of dog shootings in Maryland. Cindy Boling tirelessly assembled a bill she is determined to get passed which will mandate statewide training for Texas police so they’ll stop shooting dogs. Similar acts have successfully been passed already in Tennessee (as a result of the shooting of the Smoak’s dog) and in Colorado (in response to the shooting of a dog named Chloe). Jim Osorio has a full time business dedicated to training officers about dogs, and journalists like Radley Balko maintain a vigilant eye on the issue.
We don’t know yet if PUPPYCIDE will get the funding needed to finish it, but regardless, we’ve watched these past three weeks as hundreds of people have made pledges, thousands have shared the Kickstarter campaign, and countless champions of the cause have used our work-in-progress as a means to promote discourse. There are heroes out there and I find that inspiring! After all, PUPPYCIDE will be so much more than an examination of the issue, it will be a celebration of why this issue is so important in the first place. Because these animals are awesome! Their unique personalities, unwavering loyalty, and unconditional love make them endearing family members from the moment we bond. We spoke to Cheye and Cindy about their experience of getting new dogs after their tragedies. They told us how wonderful it was to have their homes again graced with the welcomed chaos the new dogs brought. How those new friends helped in the healing process. I had to marvel at their decision nonetheless. I mean, to have a family member you love so much taken from you so tragically and, almost without hesitation, you jump back into the fray and put yourself at risk to suffer loss once again… why? Because they are worth it. That’s what PUPPYCIDE is about.
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