Sleuth dedicated to welfare of animals

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — John Fox is sitting in his office sifting through black-and-white photos of dogs, cats and horses, but they’re not the cute, postcard variety. One by one he pulls the photos from a file and places them on a table to show a guest – dozens of gory shots that are not for the weak-kneed. They tell the tale of horrors that Fox has lived with during his 37 years as an animal cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of Utah. Cats and dogs with arrows stuck through various body parts – head, muzzle, eye, abdomen. Two suffering dogs chained in mud and water. A cat with a plastic bag secured over its head. A dog with its muzzle wired shut. The charred remains of a cat that had been doused with lighter fluid and then set on fire and turned loose. There’s no end to the carnage: A cat with a screw screwed into its head. Dogs with chain collars embedded in the skin of their necks. A pony with hooves so long they curl back into the shape of wooden shoes. Horses mired in mud up to their knees, keeled over dead. Horses that are mere skeletons with a little hide stretched over them. Dogs with gunshot wounds. “I’ve seen things you’d never want to see,” says Fox. He points to a photo of Shetland ponies, several of them dead where they fell. “The owner moved away and left 10 animals alive and 10 dead,” says Fox. He became so “stressed out” – his words – about the welfare of the surviving animals that he actually vomited. “You don’t get callous to it,” he says. Fox, a heavyset man with gray hair and a jolly demeanor that belies the sad realities of his job, remembers each case so well he can tell the story that goes with each photo even decades later. He has, necessarily, grown philosophical over the years. After discussing a case in which horses had nothing to eat except old loaves of bread the owner had tossed into the corral, he concludes, “When you get money and animals together, money will always win.” Fox never planned for such a career. After graduating from Skyline High, he drove a bread delivery truck from 4 a.m. to noon. That allowed him to spend his free afternoons performing volunteer work at the Humane Society. “I was 23 years old, and I loved animals,” he says. He walked dogs, cleaned their pens, dug graves, and went out on injured-animal calls. Eventually, a job opened for an investigator. Over the years, he has taken more than 90 classes in subjects ranging from equine care, dog fighting and cockfighting to protection of animals in motion pictures, euthanasia and animal care. Fox investigates reports of animal abuse and neglect throughout the state and inspects pet stores, zoos and everything else from aviaries to BLM wild horse facilities. He conducted nearly 300 investigations in both 2008 and 2009. For 26 years, Fox was granted official police powers after earning certification at the police academy. But in 1998 the state withdrew police status for some private organizations, including the Humane Society, which made Fox’s job more difficult. He can’t look up license plate numbers, order or execute search warrants, or file complaints with county attorneys. “The problem is, police agencies don’t want to mess with animals, and they’re not trained for that,” says Fox. When he knocks on a door to begin an investigation, Fox’s only weapons are educating and diplomacy, which tends to defuse anger and defensiveness in the accused. Fox’s collection of photos notwithstanding, most cases are rooted in neglect and ignorance, not cruelty. When the economy is depressed – as it is now – animals pay the price. Animal shelters fill up with small animals, but there are few places for the big animals to go. Fox recently received a report that a horse had been shot at a trailhead and its brand was cut off. In hard times, pets sometimes become dinner. “We find the pelts of dogs and cats in Dumpsters downtown,” says Fox. “For a while, we weren’t seeing a lot of strays.” Fox has helped formulate legislative proposals for the Humane Society. In 2008, the state Legislature – after considerable debate and back-room fighting with agricultural interests – finally made it a first-offense felony for torturing a “companion animal.” Previously, Utah did not provide for a felony-level punishment for any acts of animal abuse. Fox and the humane society are now lobbying for an anti-tethering ordinance to limit the amount of time and the conditions in which an animal can be tethered. Fox wonders why Utahns haven’t done more to stop animal abuse given the stance of the state’s predominant church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the issue. A non-Mormon, Fox refers to quotes from leaders of the church for support. He quotes Joseph F. Smith, former president of the Mormon Church, who spoke against the killing of “innocent birds” and said, “It is not only wicked to destroy them, it is abominable.” Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, once prevented a group of men from killing rattlesnakes on the trail and “exhorted the brethren not to kill a serpent, bird, or an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve ourselves from hunger.” George Q. Cannon, another Mormon church leader, said, “These birds and fish cannot speak, but they can suffer, and our God, who created them, knows their sufferings and will hold him who causes them to suffer unnecessarily to answer for it.” Fox also quotes another religious leader, Mahatma Gandhi: “If beasts had intelligent speech at their command, they would state a case against man that would stagger humanity.” “Some people don’t empathize with an animal,” says Fox. “They don’t see that it’s a living creature that hurts, gets cold and hungry, has feelings, wants companionship. They use dogs as toys for their children, or as alarm systems or something to ride for hunting. They’re just a tool. If the horse is still standing up in the field, that’s good enough. Animals won’t die if you feed and water them, but they won’t be happy.” Fox, who is divorced, reports to his office seven days a week, even on holidays and vacations. His vocation is his hobby. “John has been tireless in his efforts in working for (better) treatment of animals,” says Gene Baierschmidt, director of the Humane Society. “He’s one of the most devoted people I’ve met. He’s devoted most of his life to helping animals. It’s truly made a difference.” Fox isn’t always certain of that. “I sometimes find myself depressed and fearful that my work may not be accomplishing all that it could to eliminate animal abuse,” he says. On the other hand, there are encouraging signs, such as the neglected dog he once rescued. Says Fox, “He would rest his chin in my lap and look at me as if he were saying, ‘Thanks for helping me.'”

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