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Pacific professor responds to Oregonian editorial

Professor comments on journalistic ethics after slanted piece

Lisa Szefel, Professor at Pacific University

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When I recently moved from Hillsboro, my cat, Violet Ruth (Violet), decided to stay. The ensuing situation I soon found myself in led to me to question some of the methods of modern journalism, where the number of “clicks” seem to matter more than accuracy.

This is the true story. I bought and sold a house, then moved all within six weeks. The new owners had asked to move in two weeks early, so, wanting to accommodate them, I agreed.

Everything was rushed. On the day of the move I kept two of my cats, Vincent and Penny, in the first-floor catio. Violet was afraid of them, so I always had to keep them separated. I wondered about what to do with Violet. Should I move her preemptively to the new home, a foreign environment where she would be alone the whole day, or should I keep her in her carrier for six hours, trapped and unable to move, eat, or use the litter box. Ultimately, I decided to put Violet in the unfinished storage area on the third-floor, next to my bedroom, which for the past four years had been her safe space. About six feet high and wide, ten feet in depth, Violet’s bed, water, and food were there.

During the move, I checked in on Violet and the other cats regularly. As the movers finished, I put Vincent and Penny into their carriers, but I could not find Violet. The movers drove away, and I searched the house. One final look in her safe space revealed loose wood in the back corner. I pulled it up and saw an opening to the floorboards, but I could not see Violet. I wondered if during the commotion of the move, she could have possibly snuck out of the house. Worried, I called my spouse to tell her I couldn’t find Violet. And I could not look for her any longer, as the movers were already at the new house waiting for me, and we were contractually obligated to leave. We both returned to the house later that day to search for her.

Each morning and night for the next four days, I went to the field next to the house with food and treats in the event Violet was outside. Cats are active at dawn and at dusk, and that was certainly Violet’s habit. On the fourth day, the new homeowner called to say that the litter box had been used. I went over to the house and saw that pieces of dry food from Violet’s bowl were gone. I tried to coax her out from her safe space. I caught a glimpse of her for one brief moment, a paw dropped around the corner from the floorboards and quickly retreated. Though she didn’t come out, at least I knew where she was.

The new homeowners kindly let me place a trap with food in the house. Three days later they again let me into their house to replace the food and water, they said they did not want to deal with it themselves. At that point I also wanted to leave food out for Violet, because she had not eaten for a week. However, an arborist friend of theirs who had rescued cats, though, said to make the conditions “as unbearable as possible.” According to the friend, absolutely no food should be placed outside the trap because that would act as a disincentive to going into the cage. Even the door to the space should be shut, despite the heat.

The next four days, the owners let me come to try and coax Violet out. I had asked to come either at dawn or dusk, but they allowed me to come only in the afternoons during mid-ninety-degree temperatures and amidst noises of piano playing and a power drill; hardly an opportune environment in which to lure out a scared cat. As I left, one of them asked to make sure I did not leave food anywhere other than inside the cat trap.

The owners were setting up their new house and I understood this was an inconvenience. At each visit, I expressed my apologies and willingness to compensate them.

That Sunday was the twelfth day for Violet, and knowing she was not eating, I became increasingly worried. Their friend agreed to come over and drill a hole in the plyboard wall. I requested that he cut a foot lower than he actually did. He did not listen, and the opening made simply revealed another wall, as I had suggested it would. I then asked for food to be placed outside the cage. “Every cat will eventually go into the cage trap,” their friend insisted. “The longest I’ve seen a cat hold out was nine days.”

By that point, I was concerned that Violet would wither away, hiding from all the unfamiliar noises, sounds, and smells. She was a scared and also a stubborn cat. I had contacted local rescue groups, pest control, law enforcement, the fire department, and humane societies – none of whom were able to help. I researched how long a cat can survive without food and learned that cats can develop stress-induced anorexia, where they cannot make the connection between feeling bad and needing to eat. Another risk was feline hipatic lipidosis (fatty liver disease), a fatal illness that can develop within days of not eating, especially for an overweight kitty. Veterinarians recommend bringing your cat in if they have not eaten for two days. So, even if Violet were found, she may have irreparable kidney or liver damage. I sent texts to one of the owners with this information but did not receive word back. I then talked with a police officer about her not being fed. The officer called the owners who insisted they were feeding her. This was contrary to everything they and their arborist friend has said and done up until that call.

By then, fourteen days had passed. Their friend called to say that the owners did not want me to contact them anymore. They said that I was “ruining their experience of owning a first home together.” They didn’t have to communicate with me, he told me. “It’s their house. You left her behind, so they said Violet is their property. They can do whatever they want with her.” He added that if Violet were caught, they would call him. He lives forty-five minutes away and would have to find a time to come. Then he would retrieve Violet and arrange to meet me at a Starbucks to retrieve her. Where was their sense of urgency?

I again expressed to him my concerns about Violet starving before she was able to be caught, but he repeated his conviction that “cats can live three to four weeks without food.” He then told me of another idea he had for putting in a one-way cat door, but the new owners would not be able to let him into the house until Friday, three days away (they eventually installed this sooner). “It might take a few weeks to catch her,” he warned.

He later texted me that he saw Violet and was feeding her but did not specify where he saw her; I found the notion dubious. Plus, he had been wrong about the length of time Violet would take before relenting and going into the trap, and also on where to cut a hole in the wall. I had little faith in his tactics, but he was my only connection to her since the owners had shut me out, so I went along with what he said, expressing my thanks for his work on behalf of animals.

However, in truth, I did not believe Violet would survive several more weeks in there as he claimed. That is when I decided to contact a lawyer to find out my rights and responsibilities in this situation and that of the new owners. Was Violet their “property”? I had received conflicting ideas about this. Had I “abandoned” her? That of course was not my intent. A friend recommended I contact Geordie Duckler, the premiere animal law attorney on the West Coast, who just happened, thank goodness, to be located in Portland. He explained that cats are considered property, but ownership must be conveyed in three ways: sale, gift, or abandonment. None of these applied in my case because I had not “conveyed” Violet in any way: no money had changed hands, no offer made, and abandonment required proof of intent. My actions actually showed the opposite of intent to abandon. The real issue was not property but what can you do when someone else has your property. In this case, the new home owners were “bailees” with an obligation to take care of property.

My lawyer contacted the owners informing them of intent to file a “replevin” case, also known as “claim and delivery.” I was the owner of Violet, but not in possession of her, and I would like to get her back. If taken to court, a judge could agree with this and order a sheriff or other officer to enter the house and seize the property. Instead of going that route, he requested that I be allowed to come into the house at dusk two days later to coax Violet out.

In the meantime, my spouse created a private Facebook page to act as a clearinghouse of information because so many people were contacting us with suggestions and asking for updates. Within 24 hours the page had over 750 members.  A few recommended picketing the house, but we told them we wanted to proceed in as collegial and legal a fashion as possible; we even put up disclaimers about keeping comments positive as we intended to act in a collegial and legal manner. We did not state the owner’s names (and I am not including their names now) or the address. Our stated sole goal was to get Violet out of this situation alive.

Then, on Thursday afternoon, day sixteen, I received a call from Bonnie Hayes’ Animal Shelter. The woman said they had my cat. I went there immediately then took her straight to a hospital. While happy she was at the shelter, I doubt few cat moms want their furry friend caught like an animal in the wild, terrified amidst strangers. A battery of tests revealed two values out of range, cholesterol and a protein related to muscle mass—both brought on from lack of food.

Then, The Oregonian, claiming to show the other side of the story that KATU news had shown, ran an article that depicted the situation as an instance of “online mob mentality.” Instead of seeing the many posts from concerned animal lovers, which transcended dividing lines in American political and social life—Republicans and Democrats, Trump and Hillary supporters, religious and non-religious—Swindler cherry-picked the few comments about picketing the new owner’s homes. She painted Violet, a terrified cat, into a vicious animal who was “seeing red.” The article was so obviously one-sided; it did not include our point of view at all. The author, Samantha Swindler, also published an outright lie, one easily countered with evidence. She claimed my spouse and I did not respond to her requests for comments, when in actuality, we each had spoken with her (as our phone records indicate) for over a half hour in total, responding to all of her questions. This was after she had spoken with the owners and two days before she published the article. After that phone call, I never heard from her again. Why would she do this? Shouldn’t journalists present news in a balanced and objective manner? The Society of Professional Journalists declares that they “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” The SPJ insists that “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” and that journalists should “provide context,” and “gather, update, and correct information throughout the life of a news story.” When I asked through my lawyer to have our side included and to acknowledge that Swindler had spoken to us, the request went unmet, violating another SPJ principle: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” Responding swiftly to questions of “accuracy” and “fairness” as well as “acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently” also feature prominently in the list of guiding principles. Other media organizations hold to similar codes of ethics.

Maybe one day pets will be categorized more accurately as sentient beings with likes, dislikes, emotions, and moods. Then the length to which family members go to save them would be more easily understood. In the meantime, when Trump supporters complain about “fake news,” I now nod my head, understanding as I do that journalists sometimes get it wrong. As someone who believes that a healthy democracy depends on a free press, this represents a sad state of affairs.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Pacific professor responds to Oregonian editorial”

  1. Nancy jameson on September 13th, 2018 8:42 pm

    The truth is well written! Violet supporters are alive and well! Thank you for sharing.

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Pacific professor responds to Oregonian editorial