Around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10, a pit bull drenched in accelerant was tied to a pole in Abner Clay Park and intentionally set on fire.
Richmond Animal Care and Control (RACC), our city’s municipal shelter, posted Tommie’s story on their FaceBook page the following morning, along with a heartbreaking picture of the severely wounded animal, and that post took the city by storm.
By Tuesday, as Tommie headlines began to break on national news, thousands of dollars had already been donated to RACC in Tommie’s honor, covering his medical bills in full. The reward fund for information leading to a conviction of the person(s) responsible has already surpassed $25,000.
After about four long days of what seemed like the entire city praying and holding its breath, Tommie succumbed to his injuries and passed away on the morning of Feb. 15.
RACC promptly created a FaceBook event for his memorial service, but promptly had to cancel it since over 6,000 people had RSVP’d to the service. To give you some perspective, 6,000 people is almost 33 percent of Richmond’s population.
This overwhelming response by the public is well documented on RACC social media. You can log on right now and see for yourself just how quickly and passionately our area mobilized to support Tommie. I just hope that we can keep this momentum and channel it into addressing the underlying issue at hand: animal cruelty runs rampant in Richmond.
While I certainly shed my fair share of tears for Tommie, the horror of the situation didn’t affect me as much as it would have had it happened a year ago, before I started working at a Richmond-area animal shelter. I can tell you firsthand that regular exposure to the dark realities of abused and abandoned animals is a quick, sure way to harden even the softest of souls.
No, I have never seen an animal with third-degree burns in our shelter. But every time I put on my scrubs and return to the shelter, I see animals that are sick, wounded, malnourished, overbred, filthy, infested with mange and parasites and with so much pain and fear welled up in their eyes that it breaks my heart to meet their gaze.
What happened to Tommie was not an isolated incident. It was not a random act of evil that would normally never happen in our city. Unfortunately, Tommie’s story is just a highly-publicized little piece of a very large, troubling puzzle.
Around this time last year, RACC seized 12 dogs from a man named Carlton Hardy in the south side. The dogs, mostly pit bulls, were rescued from deplorable outdoor living conditions; Most of them injured, scarred and overbred, and all of them malnourished and obviously mistreated.
Richmond Police issued a search warrant of Hardy’s Manchester home to investigate an alleged dogfighting operation, and their suspicions were correct. Just last month, Hardy pleaded guilty to five counts of animal fighting and seven counts of animal cruelty.
Only half of his dogs are still alive today. The other six had to be euthanized, having medical and/or behavioral needs that were past the point of possible rehabilitation.
One success story is Rhea, an older female pit bull that was likely bred over half a dozen times, with permanent damage to her mammary glands to prove it. Her teeth were shaven so that she wouldn’t bite the male dogs that were forced on her, but she sadly only has about four left anyway.
What happened to Rhea and her pack was cruel, but by no means unusual. Every week, RACC seizes more pets and rescues even more strays that sport the physical evidence of long-term suffering of a lot of these same traumas.
At the shelter where I work, there are currently two dogs that stay on my mind long after I clock out. Both are victims of abusive breeding; One is a senior and has mammary cancer, and the younger one will likely later be afflicted by the same fate since her glands nearly drag on the floor. Her ears are so closely cropped that it hurts to look at them.
In response to the Hardy house of horrors, RACC director Christie Chipps Peters was quoted last year saying that Richmond is experiencing an uptick in animal abuse cases. Neglect and cruelty convictions doubled in 2017, and that was two years ago. Animal abuse is now at an all-time high in our city – RACC averages one or two cases of animal cruelty a week. So, it’s pretty frustrating and disappointing to me that it took a dog being set on fire for people to notice that we have a problem.
If there’s any silver lining to the dark cloud that Tommie’s horrific death has brought over Richmond, it’s that the legislature now seems to be listening. Just a few days ago, the Virginia House passed SB 1604, which increases animal abuse from a misdemeanor to a class 6 felony.
Right now, a felony charge is only warranted if the victim has died from the abuse. With life-saving advances in modern veterinary medicine, current law leaves too much room for unserved justice in even some of the most heinous animal cruelty cases.
Richmond City Code was also very recently revised to prohibit the outdoor tethering or inadequate sheltering of animals in extreme weather conditions. During the polar vortex that hit us in late January, RACC officers patrolled city neighborhoods and seized several dogs that were left outside in painfully frigid temperatures.
When I stopped by Abner Clay Park the other day, almost two weeks after the Tommie headlines broke, I was overwhelmed with emotion by his memorial on the fence, overflowing with flowers, balloons and messages of love and hope. It had significantly grown in size and detail since the first time I had gone to pay my respects; The poignant expression of solidarity brought me to my knees and triggered another good, long cry.
But this time, it wasn’t just tears of heartache – there were also tears of a broken heart that’s been lifted, inspired by the beautiful way our city has come together over this. It reminds me why I moved to Richmond; Despite our differences, we are a strong and passionate populace that will stand as a united front in the face of gruesome brutality which will not be tolerated.
If you feel helpless about making our city a safer place for animals, don’t. The wake left by a tragedy provides fertile ground for reformation. Don’t be afraid to call RACC if you suspect your neighbors are abusing their pets. When you see a dog tethered on a heavy chain or left outside exposed to precipitation, freezing temps or blistering heat, call RACC. Use your voice to be a watchdog for RVA’s dogs.
If you can, donate. Animal control is part of your local law enforcement, meaning it’s government-funded, which we know often translates to “under-funded.” There’s no animal control CEO riding around the city in a luxury car, so unlike some charitable organizations, you don’t have to worry about your money going toward someone’s hefty paycheck. The money you donate to RACC goes straight to the animals, the facility that houses them, and the veterinary care that keeps them alive.
While every little bit counts, kennel space is a pertinent issue for animal control that no amount of money can resolve. Even if enough money was raised to build more kennels, they’d quickly fill up with more strays and seized pets.
So how can you help? Adopt. I can’t stress this enough. There are millions of homeless animals in this country so before you go to a breeder for that ‘pretty dog’, think of dogs like Rhea. Think of the lost or mistreated pet that will get a second chance at life when you free up a temporary home for it.
When you adopt, you technically save 3 lives: the life of the pet you adopted, the life of the new arrival that’s just been rescued from the streets or abusive conditions, plus the life of the long-term shelter resident that didn’t have to be euthanized for that kennel space that you just made available.
Do this last one for me, and yourself: Hug your fur baby a little closer tonight if you have one. I know Richmond will always be united on Team Tommie. We will not forgive and we will certainly never forget.