Walter the Boston Terrier pads into Heather Jackson's sunny living room in Sanford, North Carolina. He's a small dog, maybe 9 or 10 years old, with a white wishbone marking on his perfectly square black face. His left eye is cloudy and scarred, and he can't see very well with it. Walter regards me with his good eye. He seems shy at first. But he accepts a chicken strip from my hand, decides I must be okay, and curls up on the love seat where Jackson, a police officer, is sitting. Of her four dogs, she says, "I think he knows that he's my favorite."
Walter was not always so contented. He and Jackson first crossed paths in January 2005, when a dispatcher summoned her to Barbara Key Woodley's property. Woodley, a retired factory worker in her late 60s with a ruddy face and swept-back white hair, was keeping hundreds of dogs in buildings on her four acres. Many of them were confined in open-top wooden boxes or wire crates with no access to fresh air. A judge had ordered veterinarian Laureen Bartfield onto the land to care for them. But Woodley had threatened to shoot the doctor, according to Bartfield—and from then on, she always visited under police escort. This time Jackson was the officer on call.
Trained to separate her personal feelings from her work as a law enforcement officer, Jackson, 37, had seen her share of animal welfare cases. Still, the conditions on Woodley's land shocked her. "The stench, when you went in there—if you didn't wear a mask, you'd gag the rest of the day," she says. Some of the crates were stacked and had wire bottoms, and the dogs' legs trembled as they tried to maintain their footholds. These animals were not released outside, so those in the top cages were forced to eliminate onto the ones below. Ammonia fumes and residue from their urine burned their skin, eyes, and genitals. "It was just horrid," Jackson says. "They were either petrified of you or aggressive, or they would fight each other just to get some human contact. It was hard to deal with. All I could think was, 'How in the world did this happen?'"Audio slideshow: Watch Heather and Walter's story
What Jackson didn't know then was that the legal proceedings resulting in the judge's order would unfold into a three-year battle over the fate of Walter and about 300 other dogs—Boston terriers, boxers, miniature pinschers, Pomeranians, Jack Russell terriers, and pugs, among other breeds. A nonprofit California organization called the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) had recently sued Woodley and her husband, Robert, to rescue the dogs, and its attorneys were plunging into the case with single-minded intensity. They knew they were outsiders in this rural Southern county, that their legal strategy was untested, and that any setback could condemn the animals to a lifetime of hell. The long odds and high stakes just deepened their commitment.
"Our mantra was 'Failure is not an option,'" says Joyce Tischler (above), a pioneer in the field of animal law who was ALDF's executive director at the time and is now its general counsel. "We were not going to lose this case. We were not going to let the dogs down."