THERE IS A CARDINAL rule in the newspaper business that there is another side to the story. There is also a cardinal rule of my own that no story will turn out to be the way you heard it in the first place. Every once in a while, though, both sides to the story are the same and it turns out to be the way it was told. This is one of those stories.
It begins with a letter written on yellow legal-size paper. It comes from Prince George's County, and it is about a dog named Pepper.
"She got picked up for vagrancy (running loose)," the letter begins. "She was also charged with traveling without proper I.D. (not wearing collar and tags). This was her second offense. (First offense -- vagrancy with proper I.D. She had her collar and tags.)."
The letter went on to say that the total bill to spring Pepper from the animal shelter was $84. the animal shelter confirms that. There's a $25 fine for having a dog at large and another $25 fine for no license and a redemption fee and room and board. It adds up. (It would have been cheaper to have had the dog towed.)
The woman did not have the money to spring Pepper. She asked how long she could have to raise the money. The shelter said five days. What if she couldn't get it in five days? she asked.
Goodbye Pepper, the man said.
This is what the woman said in her letter. She said, actually, that the man at the shelter said that they would wait a couple of days to see if someone would adopt Pepper. If no one adopted the dog, then it would be goodbye Pepper.
"I started to get very scared," the lady wrote. "I tried not to cry, but I couldn't help myself. Melanie, my daughter, cried, too. Just then the man in the back brought Pepper in. She was SO GLAD TO SEE US!"
At this point, the man at the animal shelter said the woman could write a letter of appeal to County Executive Lawrence Hogan. She asked how long it would take for Hogan to get the letter and make up his mind to grant Pepper clemency. The man said five to six weeks -- by which time it would be "Goodbye Pepper." (Can you see Hogan picking up the phone to call the warden of the animal shelter as Pepper was walked slowly to the gas chamber or whatever. Oh, forget it.)
"I had no grounds for an appeal," the letter went on. "I just don't have $84. I could have $84 when my Christmas bonus check comes but that's two weeks away. Eighty four dollars is more than I saved for Melanie's roller skates ($49)."
The woman thought fast. Time was ticking away. She could not leave Pepper to be adopted or, most likely, die, and she did not have the time or the grounds to appeal to Hogan and she did not have the money. She did the best she could. In red, white and blue fashion, she wrote out a bad check. "Christmas was canceled for us in the same transaction," she wrote.
I am now up to page three of the letter. I am believing very little of it. It could not be. No county would simply kill a dog because the owner can't come up with the money to pay some fine. No guy would say something like that to some woman in front of her daughter.
So I called the Prince George's County Animal Control Facility and I told the man about the letter I had received, "Yup," he said, "it's true." He talked of dogs running free and dogs defecating all over the place and dogs being a real menace. All he said made sense and I, for one, would not defend the woman's right to have Pepper run free and unlicensed. When I do it with my dog, I'm wrong and when she does it with her dog, she's wrong. The man at the Animal Shelter couldn't agree more.
I went over the letter with him, line by line. He confirmed it all. It is the policy of the Animal Control Commission. The man on the phone thought it was a bit harsh, but that is the policy.
"You would put the dog up for adoption?" I asked.
"And then after about three days you would kill it?"
So there you have it. Both sides tell the same story. It is as awful as the woman said. Maybe by now the check has bounced and the county is coming after both the woman and her dog. Run lady. Run Pepper. Run to someplace where they have a heart.