When chiropractor Drew Simmons’ cat Freda came down with feline leukemia last year, the West Los Angeles alternative-medicine practitioner decided to treat her holistically. His herbal remedies didn’t take, and Freda started looking like a skeleton.
An alarmed neighbor reported Simmons to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which presented him with a stark choice: Subject the cat to expensive veterinary treatment or put her to sleep.
Simmons refused, and the SPCA took Freda away; 51 days later, Simmons agreed to have her put down. (The SPCA can take custody of a pet for cruel treatment, but cannot destroy it without the owner’s consent.) The next week, the chiropractor was hit with two misdemeanor criminal charges of animal cruelty and neglect. The city attorney later dropped the case in exchange for Simmons’ agreeing to pay $14,000 in vet bills and perform 100 hours of community service, picking up trash in a public park. But this spring, Simmons struck back. His lawsuit, filed in L.A. Superior Court, charges the SPCA and the City Attorney’s Office with intentional infliction of emotional distress and malicious prosecution.
The case against Simmons was prosecuted by Deputy City Attorney Robert Ferber, an animal-rights advocate and former board member of HART/Mutt Matchers, a Ventura-based volunteer animal-welfare group. The SPCA called in Ferber just hours after taking Freda from her owner, says Simmons’ attorney, Tony Zinnanti.
“It is a blatant case of abuse of process,” charges Zinnanti. One of the conditions of the settlement hammered out by Ferber is that Simmons can no longer own a pet — unless it’s a snake, Zinnanti says.
Robert Pulone, the deputy city attorney assigned to defend Ferber, calls Simmons’ lawsuit a big waste of time. “They are trying to make a mountain out of a molehill,” says Pulone. “There is no basis to this lawsuit. It is in the top 5 or 10 percent for being frivolous and baseless.”
He concedes that Ferber is an animal-rights expert, but questions Simmons’ motives. “If he was a zealot, don’t you think he would have asked for jail time?”
“I haven’t seen a case like this before,” acknowledges Stephen Smith, attorney for the SPCA. Has there ever been a case like this? The issues raised by Freda’s demise are like a “Fractured Fairy Tales” version of the human right-to-die debates of recent years: Can’t a cat die with dignity? Is a “parent” criminally negligent for relying on alternative treatment for his dying feline “child”? Does pet ownership entail a legal obligation to finance an exorbitant veterinary care, even in the face of almost certain death?
In a city where 57,868 animals are killed by government fiat each year (1997 Animal Services Department figure), it’s hard to fathom why the city attorney picked on Simmons. Where are the criminal cases against the thousands of owners whose abandoned, abused or neglected pets were euthanized. Where are their bills? Why aren’t they out picking up trash?
“It’s not against the law to bring in your cat [to the animal shelter], but it is against the law to abandon [treatment] of the cat,” says Bob Peña, acting director of field operations for the L.A. Department of Animal Services.
“There were no rights for me or the cat at all,” Simmons says. When Freda died, “She looked like a prisoner of war,” he adds sadly.
Amnesty has long been a dirty word in the halls of Congress, particularly within the Republican aisles. Under Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the House of Representatives’ Judiciary subcommittee introduced some of the most draconian immigrant-bashing legislation in recent history, including a clause in the 1996 immigration-reform act that broadened the definition of a criminal felony, so that a permanent resident who was arrested for shoplifting in 1970 is now subject to deportation. But Smith shouldn’t get all the credit; he had lots of help from colleagues, including Representative Bill McCollum (R-Florida), who worked to make the change retroactive, exposing hundreds of otherwise law-abiding Californians to deportation hearings.
McCollum, however, has undergone a change of heart. The once tough-on-immigrants leader is among a small cadre of GOP lawmakers now bleating the dreaded A-word. This August, McCollum co-sponsored a bill aimed at giving Colombian and Peruvian undocumented immigrants amnesty due to increased violence in both those countries. Now, while civil war is always a good reason for providing sanctuary to the foreign-born, immigrant activists are utterly perplexed by McCollum’s turnabout.
“McCollum, along with Lamar Smith, are the twin Darth Vaders who led the efforts against immigrants,” said Carl Shusterman, an immigrants-rights lawyer. “It’s so out of place for him to now be talking about giving people a second chance when he was the one who helped sponsor the laws that took away their second chances.”
For the reason behind this sudden turnaround, look no further than the upcoming elections. McCollum is said to be considering a run for the seat left vacant when U.S. Senator Connie Mack (R-Florida) retires. As is the case for many politicians around the country in this election-buildup period, McCollum’s ambitions suddenly opened his eyes to the Latino electorate. In particular, he is eyeing the prospect of some badly needed support from Florida’s large Colombian community.
McCollum did not return the Weekly’s phone calls.
What’s next? Will McCollum join the Bush brothers, learn Spanish and hang a “Bienvenido” sign outside his campaign headquarters? We’ll hold our breath for a GOP initiative that helps the bulk of Latino immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
PAGING PAULINE KAEL
For some six months, L.A. Weekly film editor Manohla Dargis was the lone alternative voice in Entertainment Weekly’s Critical Mass column, featuring prominent reviewers issuing letter grades to big new movies.
That ended Monday, when Dargis was unceremoniously dumped via voice mail from the unpaid position. In a phone message, senior editor Doug Brod told Dargis she was being canned because her grades were “overwhelmingly negative” and “sort of stand out” in the magazine’s box-score format. Brod also mentioned that Dargis had “too many blanks” next to her name because she hadn’t seen some of the movies to be graded.
“They kept asking me to give grades for movies I didn’t want to see, and didn’t seem to want grades for movies I thought were very interesting,” Dargis said Tuesday. “I don’t grade on a curve. I’m not going to say Wild Wild West is a B . . . I’m guessing what caused a little bit of a stir is that I gave Star Wars an F earlier in the year. More and more, critics are being encouraged to promote and hype movies, not only by production companies, but the magazines they write for.”
The irony is that Time Inc.’s Entertainment Weekly is considered the cream of the industry rags, having built a reputation for edgy writing and maintaining a certain distance from the Hollywood machine. Brod points out that his staff thrashed such summer blockbusters as Eyes Wide Shut, The Haunting and Wild Wild West. Where Dargis parted company with her peers was on movies like An Ideal Husband, he added.
“It’s not a matter of particular films that she gave negative reviews,” Brod explained in a telephone interview. “The box score is all about quantity rather than quality. All you see is the final grade, you don’t get to see what’s behind it . . . When readers see overwhelmingly negative marks, they get the impression the critic is cranky or a sourpuss.” (“Who cares?” responded Dargis. “I am cranky.”)
On the other hand, E.W. is not exactly the Emma Goldman of the film world. Online reporter Matt Drudge has questioned the number of Warner Bros. films that make the cover (Time-Warner is the magazine’s parent company). E.W. film dean Owen Gleiberman recently confessed that he “never stopped getting razzed” for panning the Julia Roberts–Richard Gere blockbuster Pretty Woman; apparently, the memory still smarts, because he apologizes for his “grouchiness” in his review of the new Roberts-Gere vehicle Runaway Bride.
Every summer, Hollywood films seem to get worse, but the critics just get cheerier (viz. The N.Y. Times’ Janet Maslin). It’s a sad commentary on the state of film criticism when even the best of the industry bibles can’t find room for someone who in Brod’s own estimation is a “terrific” writer with a “provocative” voice.
“When Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and Blair Witch Project were touted as masterpieces, I thought there just aren’t that many film masterpieces in a given week,” Dargis said. “They say they wanted an alternative voice, but clearly that’s not the case.”