An Oregon couple has been ordered by an appeals court to have their dogs vocal chords cut, a controversial surgical procedure commonly known as "debarking" or "devocalization."
The ruling comes after more than a decade of complaints and a drawn-out lawsuit from neighbors over the "incessant barking" of Karen Szewc and John Updegraff's Tibetan and Pyrenean Mastiffs.
"Really? This is where we are? We have to surgically debark a dog when we can do so many other things?" remarked Sharon Harmon of the Oregon Humane Society to KOIN 6.
De-barking, while accepted as medically unnecessary, unfortunately, still has supporters. Though, animal rights groups and some veterinarians are vehemently opposed to the surgery.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) sees debarking as a cruel, short-sighted, and lazy solution to what is fundamentally a behavioral issue. "The ASPCA does not support the use of surgical procedures that attempt to circumvent the behavioral issue while exposing pets to unnecessary discomfort and risk,” they said in a statement to Reuters.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) lists canine devocalization as a "final alternative to euthanasia after behavioral modification to correct excessive vocalization has failed and after discussion of potential complications from the procedure with the owner."
According to The Washington Post, the case began in 2002 when Szewc and Updegraff began breeding Tibetan and Pyrenean Mastiffs to protect the herd animals on their 3.4 acre property.
However, the couple's neighbors Debra and Dale Krein soon realized this new venture was going to be a serious problem for their family, as court documents allege that the "dogs bark[ed] uncontrollably for long periods of time while defendants [were] away from the residence.” According to the Kreins, the barking became such an issue that they lost hours of sleep and relatives even stopped visiting them.
Jackson County, Oregon cited Szewc and Updegraff for being a public nuisance in 2004 and 2005, though the couple argued that they were the owners of a farm and livestock, which made them subject to different laws.
Nevertheless, the couple was fined $400 and ordered to debark the two dogs identified as responsible for the noise. Whether or not they followed through with the procedure on the two dogs is unknown, but by 2012, when the Kreins filed a lawsuit against the couple, The Oregonian noted that there were six other dogs on the property.
In 2015, the couple was forced to pay the Kreins $238,000 in damages and Judge Timothy Gerking ruled that they would also need to debark their dogs given that they had not solved the problem through training. When the dog owners protested the decision, an appeals court upheld the ruling and on Thursday a three-person panel issued their support of Gerking's initial order. The Oregononian reports that the morality of debarking itself was not a factor in the case.
In an interview with KOIN 6, the plaintiff's attorney Michael Franell said that the Krein's had not advocated for surgical devocalization themselves, but that the procedure was presented as a solution by Szewc and Updegraff. If this is indeed the case, it would indicate that the blame for the dog's cruel punishment lies with their irresponsible owners.
"The hard part about debarking is that it doesn't solve the problem," Harmon explained. "It just makes the dog bark at a lower volume. He's still stressed, he's still confused, he's still anxious, doesn't stop any of those problems."
Suffocating an animal's voice when they are responding as nature and nurture encourage them to because it is troublesome for the human is the height of hubris. It also underlines a concerning aspect of many human-animal relationships. Animals, especially when they are no longer convenient, are subject to whatever a human decides is best for them, a decision often reached based on the idea of what is ultimately best for the human.
The individuality of the animal, its agency, is disregarded completely and becomes collateral to the human's own desires. Good people wouldn't dream of treating other humans that way, so why on earth do they do this to animals?
The excuse, "Because it's an animal" just isn't good enough.
Banner and thumbnail credit: Wikimedia Commons user R.G. Daniel