I wrote this piece while I was still working as the Public Information Officer for the Fredericksburg Police Department. My rebuttal below was written and published in response to this article.
Since the terrible story about the dog drowning was published in the Free Lance-Star, the Police and Fire Departments have received numerous calls and emails critical of the decision to not attempt a rescue of the doomed animal. While newspaper stories are often constrained to limited details by the print space available, I am fortunate to have this platform to provide a comprehensive outline of the event.
On December 7 around 10:30 pm, the police received a call from a resident of Hazel Hill Apartments who reported that she could hear a dog barking in distress. Officer Lee Ridenour responded and searched the area around the apartment complex, but he was unable to locate the animal. Officer Ridenour then walked onto the Dixon Street Bridge over Hazel Run, from which vantage point he could hear the dog yelping. He was able to determine that the dog was located in a group of tents that had been pitched near the creek bottom. Now joined by Officer Julie Keene, the two officers made their way down a steep embankment beside the bridge until they reached the edge of the water. Hazel Run was well over its banks and moving swiftly. The officers could see the dog’s head and its eyes reflecting in their flashlight beams.
Officers do not carry equipment that enables them to safely execute a water rescue. They had neither personal flotation devices nor lengths of rope to secure themselves to the trees surrounding the campsite. The water was moving fast and estimated at about knee depth, but the terrain under the water was unknown and full of unseen hazards. Officer Ridenour called for the Fire Department to respond.
When the Fire Department personnel arrived on the scene, the dog could no longer be seen or heard. The dangerous conditions were steadily worsening. It was completely dark and the water was still rising. While a rescue by boat may have seemed possible, the area is heavily covered by trees and littered with rocks, making maneuverability extremely difficult. Given the presumed decease of the dog by that point, the Fire commander decided that it was too dangerous to place the lives of his men at risk.
Both the Police and Fire Departments operate under a system of command that is similar in structure to the military. Officers and firefighters do not freelance or fly solo. They take direction from their supervisors, who are highly trained professionals and proven in their experience. The greatest responsibility of any commander is to ensure the safety of his or her employees. While officers and firefighters are at risk every day simply due to the nature of their professions, the assumption of risk that unnecessarily places other lives in danger is considered reckless rather than heroic. Courage and audacity must be mitigated by actions that are rational and justifiable.
Chief Nye said later: “I would rather be the Chief who is criticized for not rescuing that dog than be the Chief who must explain to someone why their loved one was injured or killed during an irresponsible rescue attempt.”
While many have suggested that the actions of the officers and firefighters on Wednesday night indicated a lack of compassion for the poor dog, nothing could be further from the truth. Both departments are full of employees who are animal lovers and owners. Nobody was more deeply affected by the events of Wednesday night than the people who were there and witnessed the tragedy.
A surprising number of critics have suggested that the rescue of the dog should have been assigned the same priority as the rescue of a human being. We all operate under our own unique value systems, but I can only assume that such critics have never had to face the reality of sending a subordinate into life threatening circumstances nor have they ever had to justify the reasons behind such a decision. In public safety, the assumption of risk for an animal can not be expected to be the same as the assumption of risk for the sake of a human life.
Officer Ridenour demonstrated his commitment to seeking justice for the dog’s death by making it his personal mission to discover the identity of the person(s) responsible. By conducting interviews and researching files of known homeless individuals who have set up campsites in the area, he discovered evidence that helped firmly establish the identity of the dog’s owners. On Friday morning, after the flood waters had receded, he returned to the campsite and recovered the body of the dog which he found chained to a tree. Officer Ridenour located the owners and interviewed them at the Cold Weather Homeless Shelter in Stafford on Friday night and on Saturday, both owners were taken into custody. John Strother, 27, and Nachelle Smith, 19, of no fixed address, were arrested and each charged with animal cruelty, animal abandonment, and failure to provide adequate care and treatment to a companion animal. Both Strother and Smith were incarcerated at the Rappahannock Regional Jail.
The dog’s name was Junior.