The Alabama legal motto is “lawyers render service”, and us attorneys are often presented with countless opportunities to help people in need. Whether it is representing an indigent person charged with a crime they did not commit or drafting uncontested divorce documents for free through a local legal aid group, Alabama attorneys are very selfless with their time and care a great deal about the communities they represent.
About two years ago, in the summer of 2014, I was presented with an opportunity to render service to a friend of mine with an autistic son whose brand new puppy had been stolen by the original owner of the dog. My buddy calls me on that summer morning and is, of course, frantic and a little upset.
My friend explains the story as follows: A few weeks prior to the phone call, he and his wife purchased a weeks old pit bull puppy for their 8-year old son who has autism. The dog is a gorgeous male dog with a blue/silver coat and white paws, and he and the boy make an immediate bond. Dogs are a natural pet for children with autism because they can provide an extra level of physical protection, such as preventing the child from wandering off, and serve as an emotional anchor for those children. There are countless stories and videos on the internet of dogs providing great therapy to autistic children. I challenge anyone reading this not to cry watching or reading those stories.
One week after my friend purchased the therapy dog for his son, the family had to take a trip out of town and dogs were not permitted at the hotel where they were staying. The original owner of the puppy agreed to watch the dog while the family was out of town. My friend would later explain to me that it was the saddest he had ever seen a kid at the beach because his son missed the dog so much.
When the family returned from their short vacation, problems immediately started to arise. The family could not get in touch with the dog’s owner to have it returned and the owner would not return phone calls or would vaguely string the family along through text messages. Finally, the dog’s original owner told my friend that he wanted to keep the dog and that it was a mistake for him to sell the dog in the first place. My friend called me the next day desperate to help his son and I agreed.
At first, I was livid that any person would steal a dog that they just sold and even angrier that the owner stole a dog that had already made such a positive impact on an 8-year old boy. But, I calmed down and explained to my friend that I believed he certainly had a case that he could take to court, and even one he could potentially take to the police. However, I advised that it may be better for me to write a simple letter to the original owner explaining why he had to return the dog and letting him know that we were prepared to take this matter as far as it needs to go. Thankfully, the owner returned the dog just a few days after he received my letter.
This story has helped keep me humble and grounded over the last few years and I think about it often. Sure, I didn’t vindicate an innocent client against false criminal charges or save a family from losing a home, but sometimes the smallest cases have the biggest impact. This boy is improving every day and is able to do things that he was not prior to having the dog. Most of all, the boy is just happy to have his best friend back.
As attorneys, it is vital for us to look constantly at our community and fellow citizens and challenge ourselves to help others who are in need and to pay it forward. I am reminded of those famous words from John Donne’s poem, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”