A Waldorf woman, in a dispute with her neighbors in the woods of Charles County, has been ordered by the county to "debark" all but one of her 22 dogs, a rarely mandated surgical procedure that involves cutting the animals' vocal cords.
Maxine Swaine, who describes herself as "somewhat psychotic" in her love of dogs, is appealing the order issued last month by the county canine control board to debark the dogs and to build a covered, six-foot-high chain-link enclosure for them. One dog would be left unaltered as a guard able to bark.
She insists she needs the barking dogs for protection at her remote home, at the end of a dirt lane off Rte. 5, about 35 miles south of Washington. She lives there with a 65-year-old man she describes as the caretaker, who looks after the house while she commutes 120 miles daily to her job at a drug-testing company in Gaithersburg.
Dr. Michael Fox, a veterinarian and vice president for bioethics of the Washington-based Humane Society of America, said the debarking operation often needs to be repeated, because vocal cords can grow back. As an alternative, he said, dogs can be trained not to bark.
Barbara Cassidy, the society's director of animal sheltering and control, said she "never heard of it as a solution to a neighborhood problem. It sounds ridiculous, never mind the expense. It's a pretty bum rap for the dogs."
But don't tell that to Randy and Gayle Crowder, the neighbors whose complaints led to the canine control board's order. They said the yapping of dogs about 100 yards from their home keeps them and their three children awake at night. Since Swaine and her dogs moved in a year ago, they endured the noise, but when three dogs escaped and one allegedly attacked Gayle Crowder, they called the canine cops.
Now, Gayle Crowder said, her children will not play outside and her 7-year-old son has had to have counseling in school to allay his fear of the dogs. "We've gone from a happy family to a nightmare," she said.
Swaine blames her neighbors for all the fuss. She said she inherited a neighborhood feud from her late half-brother, James Doyle, who owned the 300 acres of woods and swamp. The Crowders came to build their house and live nearby a decade ago after surveyor Herbert Crowder, Randy's father, accepted 2 1/4 acres in payment for work he had done for Doyle. Crowder continued to do survey work for Doyle, but the two never came to terms on payment before Doyle died last year.
Enter Swaine. Her ancestors, she says, were British colonialists who owned ships and grew tea and opium in the Far East. Her career includes stints as a foreign correspondent, an aide to actor William Holden and a Hollywood image-maker, she said. The day she was born, she said, her father gave her a St. Bernard puppy, and she has been with dogs, breeding and collecting them, ever since.
"Life would not be possible for me without dogs," she said last week. "I mean seriously, I'm somewhat psychotic about it. They offer unquestioning devotion, and they are so dependent on humans. I collect abandoned dogs, people and cats." She has 10 house cats.
She moved to Waldorf last year from a Fells Point row house in Baltimore, where she provided shelter to seven dogs, a foster son and Joseph (Kojak) Lendamer, a former circus roustabout she found sleeping in her doorway.
The dog population at her Waldorf house includes two Irish setters (Roy Rouge and Celtie), two German shepherds (Amanda and Katie), Rockefeller, a black Labrador, and a mixture of Labs and shepherds. "They are well-trained, obedient, loving dogs," she insisted.
A barking chorus greets a visitor to her run-down house, until she commands their silence. Last week, only four dogs were outside, in a small fenced-in compound shielded from the lane, and the neighbors, by a stockade fence.
Said Randy Crowder, an engineer in La Plata: "It's really . . . it's hell, that's the bottom line . . . . I hope if I ever move, I don't have interesting neighbors. I hope they're just normal neighbors."
The war between Swaine and the Crowders, who own seven outdoor cats, escalated in April when the "Mandalay Farm" sign that Swaine put on her roadside mailbox disappeared. Then, Randy Crowder had to have rabies shots after he was allegedly bitten by a Swaine cat.
In July, Swaine said, two of her dogs were poisoned, and she found dead cats on her land, from among the 17 field felines that her late half-brother had owned. She accused the Crowders of killing the animals. They denied it. She also had Gayle Crowder charged with trespassing, but the charges were dropped. In August, the Crowders filed their complaint after one dog allegedly attacked Gayle Crowder, biting her shoe. In September, the canine board ordered Swaine to keep the dogs impounded, muzzled, debarked or removed from the property.
A hearing on her alleged failure to comply with the order was held Nov. 3. Afterward, Swaine agreed to have all but two dogs debarked. When Swaine did not comply, a second order was issued Nov. 19, requiring the debarking. It excluded only one dog and imposed a Dec. 15 deadline. Swaine decided last week to appeal the entire order to the circuit court. Just debarking the dogs would cost $1,500, she said.
Dr. Scott F. Cosenza, canine board chairman and a veterinarian, defended the debarking as "an extraordinarily reasonable means" of solving the problem. Cosenza said debarking is frequently one option granted in such cases, but he could not recall an instance in which the board had ordered the procedure as the only alternative. "We basically sympathized with the Crowders," Cosenza said. "When one of those suckers start to bark, all of those suckers are gonna bark."