No one’s called about Mercy today.
That’s a relief, but there’s more to say, on a couple topics and for a couple reasons.
First, last week, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – the ASPCA – offered an interview and the insights of one of its spokesmen on the psychology of animal cruelty and human reactions to it. I went through with the interview but we temporarily held off on a story after Mercy’s owner died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Secondly, the Missoula Independent ran a column criticizing the media coverage, including the Missoulian’s. In this business, criticism comes with the job and a response isn’t always warranted.
In this case, the stories about the cat elicited so much interest and such emotional reactions from readers, I wanted to share some more information on reporting this story. Here’s a response and some continued “navel gazing,” as the Indy described its piece. I’ll also second the weekly’s apologies for doing so.
Here’s a recap in the briefest terms. Last week, police responded to some loud screaming. The cops found a near-dead kitten at the scene. Animal Control tried to save it and asked for the media’s help raising money for surgery. The cat was euthanized because it couldn’t be saved. The owner ended his life. Police then said the man reported having a history of mental illness.
The story of animal abuse brought in more phone calls, voicemails and emails than any other single story in my experience. A woman called sobbing from Las Vegas. An email arrived from Kuwait. People were viciously angry at the man, and it seemed like everyone wanted to adopt that specific cat.
The editorial suggested the coverage fomented the rabid response. It’s a sound practice to question our own journalistic choices, but in this case, a conversation with the ASPCA spokesman suggests public outrage in animal cruelty isn’t artificially manufactured.
Randall Lockwood, PhD, senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects for the ASPCA, said the reactions people had in these stories are typical of other animal cruelty incidents. One of the most common questions he hears from reporters and prosecutors is why they receive so many phone calls about one single pet when they see repeated acts of violence toward humans and hear from no one.
He paraphrased a typical question from an attorney: “Why do I get 4,000 (calls and letters) about this dog burning case, yet I have a child abuse and a homicide and a rape that I’ve gotten three letters about?”
Nearly everyone can relate to caring for a dog or a cat, Lockwood said. More than two thirds of American households have pets. And that’s not all.
“There’s the perception that they are truly innocent victims. What could a kitten have done to justify that?”
When it comes to humans, people perceive there are other advocates who will look after the victims of crime. When it comes to animals, Lockwood said the public feels compelled to speak on their behalf.
“They know what it’s like to hold a cat, or they can empathize with what that animal might have gone through. And it is much easier to relate to the suffering of one kitten, perhaps. You can hear it, see it, touch it.”
He also said it can be easier for people to grasp the suffering of one cat than that of hundreds of thousands in Haiti. Many people called to find out how they could adopt that kitten in particular and donate to her specifically.
“That’s kind of the way we are wired,” Lockwood said.
In a dog burning case in Atlanta a couple years ago, he said a judge received 30,000 letters from an outraged public. A local newspaper printed a map showing the letters had been sent from around the world.
The Independent’s piece quotes an academic in the UM School of Journalism asking why the story of an abused cat received better “play” than a double homicide in the Flathead. In the newspaper, the double murders also ran on A1 above the fold.
One cat story ran the day after Animal Control called with the story and a request for donations. On the following day, the emails and phone calls flooded in. The day after that, the cat was euthanized and another story ran. The following day, the man died and a third story ran.
On the Web site, editor Sherry Devlin blocked comments that lauded the tragedy. She earlier blocked those that printed the suspect’s address and called for retribution.
We name suspects in stories. We named Gary Bassett. I called many Bassetts in an attempt to track him down. We knocked on his door. Multiple times. We still are waiting to learn more from the police when they are free to talk.
I emailed a woman who commented online and identified herself as his sister. She has not yet responded. I hope she does, even if she’s mad at the Missoulian and prefers to talk with another outlet.
It doesn’t take an especially intuitive journalist to point out that everyone wants to know more about the man. Yes, we all want to know more about him, and maybe learning more about him will remind us of the reasons these horrid stories should arouse our compassion instead of, or maybe after, our rage.
So there’s some more background. This information isn’t to make a case that our coverage is above reproach, although that would be super. It’s to fill in some of the gaps left open in the editorial calling for balance.
The Missoulian did not get a call for comment from the Indy.
The same woman who identified herself online only as Bassett’s sister said he was a combat veteran and under the care of a psychiatrist. Police said he described himself as being mentally ill.
Here too there’s more to say. We temporarily placed the story of animal cruelty on hold after the owner died, and while I didn’t want to ask Lockwood for a rain check on the interview, I haven’t contacted other sources on this topic. But here’s a small portion of what he has to say.
“I think one consistent theme is this kind of severe cruelty to animals is often indicative of a serious mental disorder, whether it can be one that’s associated with violence directed outwardly or inwardly,” Lockwood said.
He also said it’s important to take animal cruelty seriously for a couple reasons. It can be a warning sign of future violence, and it can also indicate deeper psychological disturbances.
“The level of outrage in animal cruelty cases is tremendous and not that surprising,” Lockwood said. “People are genuinely and I think legitimately fearful of people who are capable of doing these things to animals.”
So he said it’s important the legal system helps restore people who act violently against animals instead of just incarcerate them. The focus should be on prevention.
“The people who commit serious crimes will be back on the street in most cases,” Lockwood said. “So we have to go beyond just holding them accountable and go beyond retribution to what we call restorative justice.”
In this case, the situation appeared to unfold too quickly: “Unfortunately, had he not been so perhaps close to the edge already, taking his animal cruelty seriously could have been the step that could have gotten him the interventions he needed.”
Lockwood pointed to a story that ran last week in Florida. Two women who faced animal cruelty charges were found dead of apparent self-inflicted gunshot wounds. Authorities suspected they had been dead since November.
Many people have called and emailed saying they want to know more about the Missoula case. For today, this is enough.
— Keila Szpaller