“Dogpatch,” the Internet and the Fallacy of Animal Cruelty Reporting

By Marsh Myers, ACT Public Information Officer

In 1977, a Japanese fishing trawler called the Zuiyo Maru made a startling discovery. When the crew opened their fishnet, a massive, badly decomposed body rolled out onto the deck. The remains appeared to be of a long-necked vertebrate with huge flat fins. Certain that they had discovered a new species, the crew pleaded with their captain to save the body. The carcass was so foul, however, that the captain allowed only photographs and tissue samples to be taken before throwing the mess back into the Pacific. Within days, Japan had gone “monster crazy.” The mass of sloughing skin and tissue did seem to resemble a prehistoric beast – at least in the same way a Rorschach card can resemble a butterfly – most particularly an aquatic reptile known as a pleisiosaur. Some notable biologists even weighed in on the subject, certain that a remnant of the ancient seas had survived millions of years.

Today, based on better scientific analysis, the general consensus is that the Zuiyo Maru’s “pleisiosaur” was actually the badly decomposed remains of a basking shark. So what does this story have to do with allegations of mass animal cruelty in an area south of Tucson, commonly known as “Dogpatch?” Nothing. And everything. I use the Zuiyo Maru story to illustrate a point. Given shocking circumstances and untrained observers, monsters can be seen almost anywhere. And such it was with the “Dogpatch” (more correctly known as the Summit View Estates) area in late December 2009. Just before the Christmas holiday, a local animal activist was wandering through the largely rural area searching for an abandoned horse. She found the skinny, malnourished animal still alive. She also found evidence of dozens of other animals that had not been so lucky. Most of the animal remains were mixed in with mounds of discarded household trash, old furniture, car parts, tattered clothing and more. Some of the refuse appeared fresh but much of it had been there for years as it had embedded itself in the earth or blown on the desert winds until it had become so entwined with the native vegetation that it would be almost impossible to remove. In some areas, the dumping was so pervasive that rubbish heaps were as high as a grown man’s knee. It was clear even to an untrained eye that this kind of dumping had been going on for a very long time. For any human being not experienced in dealing with such issues, be they “wildcat” dumping sites like Summit View Estates or animal hoarding cases where conditions can be even worse, there is an immediate and visceral reaction. Revulsion is usually followed by anger and some obvious questions: Who would do such a thing? Why would anyone choose to live this way? Who’s responsible and why haven’t they been punished? For the animal rescuers who quickly converged on the site, those questions also became the nucleus for conspiracy theories. Shielded behind the anonymity of the Internet, nameless individuals who identified themselves only as “animal lovers” or “animal rescuers” began to claim that Summit View was a killing field for anyone who wished to abuse an animal without fear of consequence. Their proof was its very existence. After all, if law enforcement and animal control authorities were doing their jobs, Summit View wouldn’t exist at all. This is specious reasoning – akin to saying that doctors are responsible for all the disease in the world. It also doesn’t give any credit to the countless men and women who work daily in these areas, trying to make a difference against all odds. No one from ACT believed that the Summit View Estates area was a cruelty-free zone. After all, there had been numerous crimes to humans in the area, some of which were particularly heinous. In 2006, a man was murdered, wrapped in a sheet and his body set on fire along a lonely, primitive stretch of road in this same area. The case remains unsolved. And just a few weeks before the skinny horse was rescued from the desert here, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD), in cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (both ACT member agencies, incidentally), rescued nineteen illegal aliens who were imprisoned in a trailer home while their relatives back home were being extorted for ransom money. This wasn’t the first time authorities had to affect such a rescue in this area. Doubtless it will not be the last. With so much inhumanity toward humans, it was not a stretch for any ACT investigator to imagine that animal cruelty also takes place in the area. The difficulty, of course, is proving it. During the height of the Summit View media frenzy, the Internet was flooded with stories of animals lynched from trees, subterranean dog-fighting rings, grisly scenes of dogs with their heads bashed in with the “murder weapons” lying conveniently nearby, and strange ritualistic cruelty performed by unknown occultists. I had several phone conversations with individuals who claimed that “they” had mountains of evidence, including photographs and upwards of two dozen live animals rescued from the site who showed proof of cruelty on their mangled bodies. But not one of these callers could or would tell me who “they” were. Some claimed that “every animal rescue organization in Tucson” had been involved in the spontaneous investigation, but could not provide a single agency or individual’s name. No one ever filed a criminal report on any of the crimes “they” witnessed or for which “they” had evidence. Some promised to gather up the elusive photos and provide me with a precise timeline and maps on what “they” had discovered. Weeks later, I’m still waiting and these people no longer reply to my emails. The few names and agencies we were able to track down via their Internet postings, were contacted for more information. As of this writing, none of them have responded to our requests to share their “evidence.” In desperation, ACT issued a media release on January 19, 2010, which asked for anyone “with first-hand information of cruelty issues” in the Summit View Estates area to contact the authorities. Anonymous reporting options were provided and the story was carried in all major media in southern Arizona. The Internet posters were getting what they said they wanted – serious investigation of their claims – but the investigation was met with an eerie silence. Were the internet posters lying about what they had found? Most were likely just misinterpreting some of what they had seen. And like the child’s game “telephone,” Internet postings and emails only exacerbated the problem by becoming more exaggerated with each new incarnation. An animal found with a rope around its neck was transformed into a strangulation or lynching victim. The remains of cattle that ACT forensics experts identified as having been butchered for meat were claimed to be the victims of brutal occult rituals. Etc., etc., etc… After exhaustive attempts, no ACT enforcement agency has yet to find a single scrap of evidence to support the “animal cruelty conspiracy theory.” Disturbingly, what we have found is a contingent of “animal rescuers” who are so certain of their own interpretation of Summit View’s issues that they appear to be taking the law into their own hands. County authorities caught one group attempting to lure owned animals off of private property (this is known as theft to law enforcement) which resulted in one man being bitten. There have been additional reports of animal thefts from homes in the area and groups of “rescuers” who are now covering up their license plates with duct tape in order to avoid being identified. Law enforcement has stepped up patrols through the area. So what is the truth about “Dogpatch?” With better-trained eyes assessing the situation, including experienced animal cruelty investigators from PCSD and the Humane Society of Southern Arizona, a different reality begins to reveal itself about the area. It is still an ugly reality. The eight-squaremile parcel of land has portions alternately owned by governmental entities and private individuals. It is a high-crime area with low reporting. The area is extremely impoverished and is often heavily traveled by undocumented immigrants and used by gang members, drug traffickers and other professional criminals. “Wildcat” dumping has been common in the area for years, although certainly not ignored by officials. In 2009, for example, the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality (PCDEQ) had three major cleanups of the area resulting in the removal of literally tons of trash. But “wildcat” dumpers can replenish the waste faster than it can be removed and detecting them is difficult in an area of open desert crisscrossed with primitive roads. During the final weeks of 2009 and early 2010, the Pima Animal Care Center removed approximately forty identifiable animal carcasses from this large area. Most were of beef cattle, probably slaughtered for food by local residents as is a customary practice in the area. Some others were horses and dogs. Although many of the recovered remains were old – literally sun-bleached bones – those that were able to be analyzed revealed no overt signs of cruelty. Investigators and veterinarians now believe that most of the bodies were probably family pets or livestock that died elsewhere and were unceremoniously dumped along with other household refuse. Based on other criminal activity in the area, ACT investigators do believe that some animal cruelty is occurring in the area. Enforcement efforts have been strengthened and a bill designed to beef up penalties for illegal dumping of any kind is currently making its way through the State legislature. Other agencies are working with elected officials, local educators and businesses to help address Summit View’s long-term issues. ACT is still seeking anyone who has direct knowledge or physical evidence of any act of animal cruelty or the whereabouts of live animals rescued or stolen from the area. Such information can be forwarded to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, Tucson Police Department or Pima Animal Care Center. Information can also be left anonymously by calling 88-CRIME at (520) 882-7463 or online at www.88crime.org.