Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains of 2007––the people, places, and things that we’ve either fallen head over heels in love with or developed uncontrollable rage towards over the past twelve months. Get your dose, starting Boxing Day and running into the new year, three times a day––sunrise, noon, and sunset.
Let’s get something straight at the beginning: animal abuse is a horrible crime that should be enforced more vigilantly and punished more severely than it currently is, and animal abusers should be scorned and vilified. But let’s also get something else straight: determining who is, or who is not, guilty of such crimes is a matter for the courts to decide, and extremism in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
The story of Tre Smith, an investigator with the Toronto Humane Society, is a textbook example of the need to balance the ends of justice with the means of getting there.
The facts have been well reported. Smith smashed the window of an overheated car on a summer’s day in Parkdale in order to pull out a dog left inside. So far, so good. Had Smith stopped there, he’d be a hero. Then the owner, Paul Soderholm, returned to the scene. Angry words were exchanged between Smith and Soderholm. Smith decided that the dog required more care than what he could provide to it there, so he put the dog in his own vehicle in order to drive it to a clinic. Again, if this was the extent of Smith’s actions, he’d be a hero. But it wasn’t. Before driving off, Smith handcuffed Soderholm to the parked car where the dog had been, and left him there. After Smith left, Soderholm was beaten up by bystanders, losing three teeth and being pelted with stones. Police eventually arrived, charging Soderholm with animal cruelty and charging two men at the scene with assault.
No doubt, some people are attracted by the notion of vigilante justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In their minds, Soderholm got what he deserved; some might even say that Soderholm didn’t get punished enough. And, to be fair, what Soderholm is alleged to have done—leaving an animal in a car on a hot summer’s day—was cruel. If convicted in court, Soderholm should be punished.
But society, it is hoped, has moved beyond the day when someone in authority can decide to confine an accused criminal (or, for that matter, a convicted criminal)—and there is no way to view handcuffs as anything other than confinement—and then fail to concern himself with the welfare of the person whom he has confined. And Smith has publicly acknowledged that he did precisely that. He handcuffed Soderholm and left him in the company of random strangers, who, after he left, attacked.
Smith is a lucky man. Lucky that Soderholm was not beaten more severely by the mob, lucky that Soderholm did not experience any medical emergencies while handcuffed, and lucky that his only punishment was a temporary suspension from his duties.
There are no heroes in this story, only villains. If Soderholm did what he is alleged to have done, then he is indeed a villain. But villainy also takes the form of confining someone and then leaving him in the hands of people who are not police officers, and Smith has admitted that he did this. Arbitrary detention, disregard for those in confinement, and the creation of conditions conducive to mob attacks have no place in any enlightened system of justice, and no end can justify such means.
Photo by Agatha Southeil from the Tre Smith is Hot Facebook group.