Sana (Parts 1-4)
We've asked a guest writer, Ana Hernandez, to write about her experience in a domestic violence relationship where her then girlfriend used their dog Sana as a way to inflict harm in the relationship. Ana has written a four part essay. We hope that this essay will bring to light some of the issues around domestic violence in the LGBTQ communities as well as how very deeply the animals in our lives are affected. Please note that this essay is the abridged version. If you would like to read a longer version that includes how the other dog and cat in Ana's life were affected, please let us know.
By Ana Hernández
On the evening of September 11, 2004, I was driving my girlfriend, Jackie, and some of her friends back from the 9/11 memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As I pulled onto the highway, I saw, reflected in the headlights, two enormous eyes staring up from a small heap in my traffic lane. I zoomed the van over the creature, then turned sharply into the parking lot of a truck stop, explaining, “there’s something in the road, I think it was hit.” I ran to the spot and saw a tiny dog in the gutter, likely blown over by the 18-wheelers roaring past. As I scooped her up, she tensed but did not resist.
We took her to the nearest emergency vet, who did a physical exam and suggested that, given the road rash along her face and ear, broken teeth, and the fact she appeared paralyzed, her skull might be fractured. I chose to leave her for observation, monitoring, emergency intervention, and precautionary medication to reduce swelling and the chance of infection.
On the ride home, Jackie’s friends asked if we would keep her. I said I thought we should check to make sure she didn’t have a home and if not, we should be cautious because we had three big dogs at home and I didn’t want to put the little one in danger. These dogs, with me for years before I met Jackie, were tightly bonded and I had on occasion interrupted them hunting small animals as a pack. I worried about how they would treat a small dog in their midst they might consider weak.
The dog had no people we could find and so “Sana,” as Jackie named her (“healthy” in Spanish and, said Jackie, “I like that it has ‘ana’ in it”), came home with us. Jackie was not working and so I taught her how to turn Sana every few hours, reduce the risk for urine scalding, syringe-feed her, do basic physical therapy, and record these activities plus her medication schedule, bodily functions, and changes to Sana’s demeanor or behavior, explaining it would help us track her progress and, if necessary, make good decisions about later treatments.
Within days, Sana was eating independently and re-learning how to walk. She adapted, soon keeping up effortlessly with the big dogs, was adopted into the family, easily and seamlessly, and took especially to one pack member, a big shepherd named Madra. Sana also bonds to people; affectionate and joyful towards all, and supremely confident that all who meet her must want her attention. It was this quality that Jackie counted on when she dognapped Sana a year and a half later.
Late one spring night in 2006, Jackie and her new girlfriend, Beth, hid behind the shed at the end of my long back yard. Jackie had moved out months earlier and had whittled down to sporadic “visitation” with Sana. But she knew my routine, and Sana knew Jackie and approached the fence when called. I sprinted toward them, but Sana was snatched over the fence and they all disappeared down the alley.
Just days before, my neighbor Paige, also a family law attorney, stopped by. After a quick check-in, she cautioned, “I saw Jackie at the farmers’ market yesterday. She’s really, really angry.” And, gesturing towards Sana, “I’d be careful with her if I were you.”
As I ran back inside, intent on getting to Paige’s, the answering machine picked up and intoned, “Ana, this is Jackie. I took Sana and she will be with me from now on. Thank you for taking such good care of her. You have abused this little dog to hurt me, and you don’t deserve to have her. You’d better not do anything to try to get her back.” I felt what had become, with Jackie, the usual collision of emotion and insecurity – abuse Sana? Why was she lying? Hurt Jackie? Was it true? Thank you?! She was contradicting herself! Paige took me into her living room, listened to my account and marched us back to my house to listen to the message. “Idiot,” she muttered, and commented how great it is when abusers tell you what they have done.
I called 911 and they dispatched a police officer, who repeatedly insisted it was a civil matter and not his problem. Paige told him, as I had, that the perpetrator was my ex-partner, which suggests that very likely there was more than simple theft at hand, and that Jackie violated the property boundary to complete the theft, which is a criminal act. The officer refused to listen and left. Paige told me we could call the police station in the morning and file a report, as the officer was wrong and we should find someone else.
The next morning, I was nervous because of how things ended the night before and because Jackie had bragged several times that she knew some women officers and one or two had a crush on her. With Paige present, I called but once I said my name, I was told I’d given Sana to Jackie because, I’d supposedly said, they had bonded to each other. Paige took the phone and said, “That’s not what she told the officer. I was with her last night when she talked to him. I was here. I’m her attorney.” But I could hear the voice at the other end, not pausing, definitive, and impassable. Paige quickly got off the phone. “Jackie talked to them already this morning. They’re lying.” My stomach knotted – this was the first time I’d ever asked for legal help, and the doors were quickly slamming shut.
When Jackie and I were in a relationship, I knew we had work to do. But I didn’t know what to do about her intermittent, unpredictable episodes of what felt like intense dislike of me. One time, after she asked me what I wanted in life, I said, “to find peace, to take care of myself and the animals in my life, and to be engaged in the world,” and she replied, with disgust, “You have no goals. That’s pathetic. How can you live like that?”
Over time things got worse and I started looking for a therapist. Once, after returning from an appointment, Jackie asked how it went. I said, “She’s nice, but it’s early to tell.” “But what did she tell you?” Jackie asked. Uneasy, I replied noncommittally, again. Suddenly, she screamed “Why can’t you… tell me what she… said?! There never was a therapist or an appointment, was there? What have you been doing, all night?”
The next night, I called a domestic violence hotline. I was feeling shameful, unsure of myself, and afraid of Jackie’s unpredictability and volatility. After an hour and a half I apologized for taking so much time because I didn’t know if I “should” have called. “I believe you. I hear someone who is sad, and hurt, and scared. It makes sense when you say you don’t know what is going on or what will happen next. And I hear you taking responsibility for it all, blaming yourself. So, yes, I’m glad you called and I am here if you want to talk again.” And so I met Maura.
Towards the end of winter in early 2006, Jackie announced she was finally leaving. On moving day a few days later, she left much of her stuff and kept her key. Over the next several weeks, she alternated between telling me I was holding her things hostage to control her, that she didn’t want any of them, and that she’d left them for me as “gifts.” The move came to an end weeks later over arguments that I was stealing from her.
One day, Jackie called, sobbing, “I’ve made such a mess, I’m such a mess,” saying she just wanted to see me, that I was safe and kind and good. I agreed to meet her in the parking lot of a nearby gas station. When I arrived, Jackie said she missed Sana and asked why was I keeping them apart. As we spoke, I remembered with dread that I had left the van unlocked. Jackie ran and grabbed Sana, ran to her truck, and locked Sana in the cab, shoving me back against the van. We argued, futilely. I stopped, called my friend Michelle, asked her to come right away, then reached for Jackie’s keys. She wrestled me back towards the van and forced me in, then bit my hand. I snatched the keys and got out of the van.
That evening, after helping us create a visitation plan for two weeks for the dogs (which Jackie would promptly and continually change), Michelle accompanied me home and commented, mildly, that we could take pictures of my hand, now swollen and bruised. I said no. I was tired, I didn’t want to go to the police, to court, for this to get even uglier. And I didn’t want to do that to Jackie.
To get Sana back from her dognapping Paige uncovered a state law that allowed me to regain possession of “goods and chattels” taken by an illegal act, until the court decided ownership. Paige scheduled the sheriff’s office to go to Jackie’s workplace with Sana’s carrier. I arrived home, with Sana, to a message from Jackie’s mother telling me she wanted me to think about what I had done and that Jackie was broken-hearted.
Jackie brought many people with her to the hearing, cried through the proceedings, complained that Sana’s nails had been too long, testified an animal communicator told her Sana was waiting for Jackie to come get her, and perjured herself when she presented Sana’s care log with added notes, including that I was jealous of Sana’s bond with Jackie. These new notes included a 2006 date, although Sana’s care log was written in 2004. When questioned about the discrepancy, she said that she had written herself a note to remember to do something in 2006. The magisterial district judge granted ownership of Sana to Jackie.
Paige filed an appeal and shifted strategy. In the minor court hearing, we focused on the domestic violence and presented the dognapping of Sana as evidence of the abuse. We believed that if the magisterial district judge understood domestic violence, she would hold Jackie accountable for using Sana to continue her abusive behaviors towards me. Jackie’s attorney focused on attempting to prove Sana was Jackie’s and that I was wrongly withholding her. It appears the magisterial district judge ignored the domestic violence. Paige now focused on proving I was Sana’s rightful owner, in large part because we were learning how so many people – including law enforcement and courts -- choose to ignore domestic violence and how this ultimately validates the abuser.
I dreaded the day of the arbitration hearing. I had lost once, even when it was proved Jackie was lying. My affect in court is very unemotional and formal. Wouldn’t that look like I didn’t care, like I was the controlling one? What if it became “she said/she said” and the attorneys did not understand domestic violence? If I brought no one with me, would that be interpreted as meaning that I couldn’t even convince others of my story, especially if Jackie brought many people with her, again? What if the attorneys gravitated to Jackie, who was from the area, pretty, and could be very charming? What if not being able to hold it together in court was misinterpreted as lacking a story that held together?
I hated ignoring domestic violence and talking about Sana as just a thing, but we proved I was her primary, long-term, and stable caregiver, and therefore her best possible owner. After the arbiters decided, unanimously, that I possess full ownership of Sana, they set her value at “more than $20,000.00 [but] not exceeding $35,000.00.” This meant that any potential appeal would cost Jackie a great deal of money. She never contacted me again. Only then did I finally begin to feel free and happy and safe. Sana – sprawled across the bed, feet touching mine as I write this – is thriving and charismatic. Admittedly though, I still cringe inside when people who meet her are charmed and say to me, unwittingly, “I’m going to steal her.”