A Run Of The (Puppy) Mill Story

I originally wrote this story in 2002, shortly after Election Day.  I was woken by my local NPR radio host’s voice declaring a landslide victory for the Republicans and a trouncing of the Democrats.  Unable to go back to sleep and pretend it was a bad dream, I pulled myself out of bed instead and retrieved my copy of the US Constitution. Sitting in my living room in the early morning hours, feeling powerless and angry and wondering what in the hell voters were thinking, I could at least take solace in the thought that some old, dead politicians were savvy enough to create checks and balances and I hoped that Bush could at least be slowed down from ruining this country.  I questioned why I felt so horrible- because after all, history is cyclical and one day soon we’d be basking in the tax and spend days of some future Democrat and all would be right with the world.  Then I realized that I was disheartened because I’m a “common good” kind of gal, and in this election, the people had voted mostly for themselves, for their short-term future.  But I believe in the system.  I’m willing to throw my tax money at social programs, oftentimes because I don’t know what else to do.  And I’m here to tell you how I got to be the sort of person who believes that we as citizens have a duty to try and set things right in our country – and that I was introduced to this lesson by a TV newsmagazine show called Hard Copy.


It was 1987.  I was a freshman in high school.  I can’t remember why on that particular day I wasn’t over at my friend Wendy’s house smoking copious amounts of weed and listening to the band Rush.  Regardless, on that afternoon I was, instead, watching Hard Copy, sober as a nun, when I first heard of Erv Stebane.  According to the platinum blond, buxom “journalist”, Erv Stebane was the owner and operator of a puppy mill in Northern Wisconsin, and he had been found in flagrant violation of many animal welfare laws yet his operation was never shut down. Hard Copy had gone behind the scenes to document the cruel conditions that his dogs were forced to live in.  Shocking photos and a litany of abuses were mentioned, yet Erv had rarely received more than a slap on the wrist and a small fine for his inhumane practices.  As I watched, I grew increasingly upset.  Like most people who are irked by the vast majority of humans, I do get along exceptionally well with animals.  And what I saw on the TV was unconscionable.  Yet I had an idea- an ingenious idea spawned by reading countless mysteries and one rare day without weed.  I found a map of Wisconsin, located the county I had seen etched on the courthouse Erv Stebane had entered on Hard Copy, narrowed down the search to 4 random towns within that county, then dialed 411, asked for Erv Stebane’s phone number, and (by the grace of God) was granted the 10 digit number by the operator.


Thus began my obsessive, vindictive, and most likely illegal act of vengeance and righteousness.  I would call Erv at all hours of the day and night, hurling threats and insults at the man, sometimes at his wife if she picked up the phone.  Horribly cruel and wicked insults, they were.  Yet the guy never hung up on me!  It’s almost as if he enjoyed our perverse verbal jousts.  He would tell me how much he loved to hurt animals, and that they were put on this earth to be dominated.  I would tell him he’s going to hell.  I would remind him that he’s a no-good, backwoods, masochistic asshole.  And for close to 20 years we’ve been having these chats.  I’d like to say I’ve had some kind of influence on him, but the truth of the matter is I think he believes I’m just some obsessive animal rights activist with too much time on her hands. 


I did not grow up in a political household.  The only thing I knew about politics back then was that my father was a Republican, my mother was a Democrat, and they didn’t get along.  So we didn’t talk politics.  So what was stirred in me to call Erv and carry this on all these years?  How did I come to believe that with enough social workers, tax dollars, letters to the editor, campaign finance reform, mandatory civics classes, and voter turnout this country might just have a fighting chance?  I’m a horrible team player and somewhat lazy, so I read the papers and try to keep up on what’s going on and write the occasional pissed-off letter without joining any groups or going to rallies and being forced to endure chants that I find embarrassing.  And I keep my sense of humor by sending gifts like an ACLU membership to my conservative father and his new wife down in Florida.  One year, in my father’s name, I donated a goat to some impoverished village in Africa, although I never received a thank-you from him, come to think of it.


The point is, we aren’t allowed to NOT CARE.  Erv Stebane and Hard Copy helped teach me the inherent good in attempting change, even if it is enacted through infantile vengeance.  And even now, as he’s getting on in years and sounding more and more feeble on the phone, I notice myself starting to feel sorry for the old guy when I call him up after a night of drinking at the bar.  I guess I’m a true bleeding heart liberal, loving my enemies.  But not so sappy as to tell you that area code 920-989-1652 will put you in touch with a certain fella that may just need reminding that there are people out here who aren’t done fighting yet.  That’s 920-989-1652.