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Lessons from a dog

[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Boys in Pinellas County’s juvenile boot camp pet Rusty, a 1-year-old mutt who is the official education dog for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. SPCA representatives teach classes at the boot camp on how to care for animals and why mistreating them is wrong.

By JEANNE MALMGREN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002

Animal abuse by kids can be an early warning of violence and crime. That's why the SPCA brings dogs for a visit each year to Pinellas' boot camp for youthful offenders.

CLEARWATER -- The boys file into the classroom and take their places behind desks. Rigid spines, eyes straight ahead. The room is bland, institutional, a gray container for wayward human beings.

The boys wear camouflage fatigues, shiny black boots and plastic ID bracelets. Their heads are shaved. Acne blooms across some of their cheeks. Not one of them is old enough to vote.

"At ease!" shouts a man in a black uniform. Drill Instructor is stitched on the pocket.

"Yes, sir!" bellow the boys, in unison. They pull out their chairs and sit.

Their eyes widen.

Before them stands a shaggy orange dog, its leash dragging on the carpet, a brand-new rawhide chew in its mouth. It's slobbering happily.

Someone giggles. The dog wanders down the aisle, and hands reach out furtively to pet it. To the boys, this contact feels nice; most of them get only one or two hugs a week, when relatives visit for an hour.

This is Pinellas County's juvenile boot camp, and today's lesson is about animals. How to take care of them. Why mistreating them is wrong. What happens if you do.

Sharon Hauser, in background, of the Pinellas County SPCA talks to young men in the county’s boot camp program.
The reason for the class is simple: Animal abuse is an "indicator" crime. Young offenders often start by hurting animals, then move on to humans. Oregon school shooter Kip Kinkel, 15, detonated firecrackers in cats' mouths and shot birds and squirrels. Before 16-year-old Luke Woodham stabbed his mother to death and shot nine students at his Mississippi high school, he beat his own dog, set it on fire and then bragged about it in his journal, calling the dog's death his "first kill."

Now here sits a roomful of juvenile offenders, ages 14 to 17, boys who've already been in trouble with the law several times. Maybe they haven't abused an animal, but they're at risk for such behavior.

It's already too late for one young man, Robert Pettyjohn, who was sentenced on Jan. 11 to 10 years in prison for shooting two bulls in Hillsborough County. Pettyjohn, 19, also faces charges in Pinellas County for sodomizing and brutalizing llamas and killing gerbils and a goat. Authorities say his weapons included golf clubs, a bow and arrow, baseball bats, pellet guns and a meat cleaver.

Maybe early intervention will save these boys from that path. They are spending several months in this complex of one-story buildings at the edge of the Pinellas County justice center on 49th Street. The program is modeled after the U.S. Marines' notoriously tough boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. Relentless physical exercise. Daily marches. The bellow of a drill instructor in your face.

Florida has eight such boot camps, some called drill academies. All are operated by the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Florida Sheriffs' Association.

Pinellas County's boot camp has been open since 1993. Every two months or so, a new group of 30 boys, called a platoon, is initiated. Usually there are two platoons going at once. Most of the boys are fresh out of juvenile detention, where they served time for auto theft, residential burglary, aggravated battery. Some were convicted of felony drug offenses.

Pinellas sheriff’s Cpl. Wade McClendon escorts a line of young offenders from an SPCA class. The boys spend several months in the program, which is modeled after the Marines’ tough boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. The program includes daily marches, endless physical exercise and strict discipline.

For five years, representatives of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been coming here. They always bring along an animal or two.

"Good afternoon, gentlemen," says Sharon Hauser, SPCA education manager, a woman with long blond hair and a sweet smile.

"Good afternoon, ma'am," the boys chorus, their eyes on the dog.

Today Hauser is accompanied not only by Rusty but also by Beth Lockwood, the SPCA's executive director. Lockwood brought a second dog, a small black bundle of energy named Shy.

Shy is recovering from a broken shoulder it suffered in December when its owner drop-kicked it 25 feet in an apartment complex parking lot in St. Petersburg. The man was arrested, and the SPCA took custody of the dog. Now Shy is affectionate and doesn't cower from human touch.

Hauser begins by reviewing topics covered in a previous class. What does SPCA stand for? What are the three basic needs of pets?

The boys raise their hands.

"Food and water, ma'am," says one.

"Shelter, ma'am," says another.

Pinellas sheriff’s Cpl. Michael Picardi gives Rusty a scratch during a recent class.
The drill instructor paces the back of the room, watching for any deviation from the rules. Both hands must be on the desktop. Feet flat on the floor, heels together, toes pointing out in a V. Boot camp is four months of iron discipline. These boys will soon graduate into "transition" and move to a less structured program in which they eventually will be allowed to leave the grounds to work. They'll be back in the outside world -- at least partly -- and the old temptations will be there again.

As they listen to Hauser and Lockwood, another platoon is going through some sort of drill in the bathroom next door. Angry shouts bounce off tile walls, over and over. Most of the boys manage to ignore the incessant noise, but when they hear a sudden crash, as if a chair hit the floor, several look nervously toward the door.

Hauser eases into the subject of animal abuse.

"Remember Baby Iris?" she says, referring to a pit bull in the news several years ago. "She got into the garbage, and the man got so angry he beat her into a coma."

Most of the boys nod. They remember.

Lockwood takes over, reading the police report about Shy. After kicking the puppy across the parking lot, its owner, already on probation for another crime, resisted arrest. He cursed police officers, threatened to kill them and kicked out a window in the cruiser.

"What do you think about that?" Lockwood asks the boys.

A murmur ripples around the room.

"How many of you were arrested for fighting, for your anger?" she says.

Five of the 14 boys raise their hands.

"How many of you have kids already?" Lockwood asks. Two hands go up.

"Would you want to leave your kid, or your little brother or sister, with this guy? You think he only kicks dogs?"

"No, ma'am," several boys call out. Every answer has a "ma'am" or a "sir" attached to it.

Lockwood keeps hammering.

"Have you ever gotten so mad you threw something across the room?

"Do you think you'd ever kick an animal?

"Do we get to take out our emotions on animals when we flip out?

"Are there other ways to defuse?"

She looks down at the black dog snoozing by her feet.

"This puppy is fortunate. He's going to get a good home. But do you think there are other animals out there that never made it to the SPCA?"

"Yes, ma'am!" the boys shout.

She goes over the legal aspects, explaining the difference between cruelty and neglect. She tells the boys that intentional animal abuse is a third-degree felony.

She shows videos of abuse and neglect cases investigated by the SPCA: A dog lying on its side in a yard, choked by its own chain. Dead birds, decaying in their cages. A house where 26 dogs lived, a thick layer of animal feces covering the floor.

Lockwood asks how many of the boys grew up with pets. Most raise their hands.

"I have a cat named Catfish," announces one. "My daddy found it by the side of the road. The cat don't do nothing wrong."

Another boy says he wants a ferret. Lockwood quizzes him on what a ferret eats, if it needs to be walked, whether it gets along with other animals. The boy has no idea.

"You get a ferret book out of the library and you read," she says. "No ferret for you until you know how to take care of it."

The conversation turns to dog fighting. Lockwood asks how many have been to a dog fight. Most of the hands shoot up.

"It was pretty neat," says one boy. "Those dogs are highly disciplined. The way they attack."

Lockwood pounces.

"You think the dogs enjoy that?"

"Yes, ma'am," says the boy, enthusiastically, missing her point. "They just lock those fangs. Sometimes you have to break their jaws to get 'em apart."

"What happens to the losers?" Lockwood asks.

"Oh, the losers?" The boy is slightly puzzled about why she'd ask such an obvious question. "They die."

Lockwood says that some survive, but they're in a lot of pain afterward.

"And then the owner just cleans it up, shoots a bunch of penicillin in it, and gets it ready for the next fight."

She shows a video of a fighting dog confiscated by the SPCA. It lies limply on the floor, its head peppered with puncture wounds. A plastic shunt is inserted into its muzzle, draining fluid.

"Does this dog look happy?" Lockwood asks. "We had to put it to sleep. There's no way it could have gone to a home. It had been trained to kill."

At least one boy is unconvinced. He says the dogs are like soldiers, noble and brave.

Lockwood frowns.

"People fought dogs in the 1800s," she says sternly. "It's a brutal sport. We need to get over some of these things."

"If it's so bad, why do they sell the equipment, still?" another boy asks.

"It's all about money," Lockwood answers, hands on her hips. "Gambling. Someone's personal gain."

One boy says he knows of a barber shop in St. Petersburg that hosts regular dog fights.

Lockwood smiles grimly, nodding. The SPCA already knows. They're on the case.

The class winds up with a job offer: Lockwood says that after the boys graduate from boot camp and move into transition, she'll hire them at the SPCA shelter. Cleaning kennels and feeding animals. $6.50 an hour.

This is an enticing offer. Most of the boys owe hundreds of dollars in restitution to the victims of their crimes.

"And trust me when I say: If you don't work, I'll fire you," Lockwood says.

She has been burned before, hiring boot camp graduates. One boy stole drugs out of the SPCA veterinary pharmacy and disappeared. Another failed to show up for work one day; he was caught stealing a car.

"I haven't seen a lot of you make good choices," says Lockwood. "And you've got to make good choices. It's up to you. If you don't, you can plan on being in and out of lockup for a long time."

She gives them her cell phone number and spells her name, B-E-T-H, twice. Every single boy writes it down.

The lesson is over. Lockwood and Hauser pick up the dogs' leashes and head for the door. The boys strain to look, one last time.

"Stay focused, men," the drill instructor barks.

"Yes, sir!"

-- Information from Times files and the American Humane Association was used in this story.

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  • Lessons from a dog