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A Dog on the Roof

June 23, 1988|AL MARTINEZ

James Garrett is not the kind of guy who wanders around the neighborhood punching people out, but I wouldn't kick my dog in his presence if I were you.

If he catches you at it, he is likely to ask you please not to kick your dog, and assuming you comply with his request, he will thank you kindly and continue on his way.

A soft-spoken man who writes nature columns and loves all living things, Garrett is generally a polite and amiable human being.

If, however, you persist in kicking your dog around, you are liable to find you are no longer the kicker but the kickee, and the fearsome growl is not from the dog but from Garrett.

For all of his amiability and love of life, he is not a man who is likely to tolerate cruelty to your pet or anyone else's pet. Consider, for instance, the Case of the Dog on the Roof.

Garrett, 43, whose home is in Venice, had stopped for breakfast one morning in Marina del Rey when he saw a pickup truck pulling out of the parking lot with a dog on the roof of the truck's camper shell.

Garrett thought this a deplorable way to treat a dog but the camper was out of sight before he could react, the dog teetering on the roof, its claws dug in as much as possible to the shell-top.

I'm not sure exactly why the animal was there and neither was Garrett, but he was reasonably convinced that it was in imminent danger of toppling off into traffic, and the image fixed itself in his mind.

You must understand, to begin with, that we are dealing with a man with strong and abiding principles who once abandoned a lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian when he saw what they did to animals for teaching purposes.

A dog, for example, had been a part of one specific university class for 12 years, and each semester they broke its leg so that new students could see how a break was re-set. Steady work under questionable conditions.

Garrett took one look at that and switched his major to forestry and wildlife preservation, which is why he now writes about nature. His columns appear in small regional publications.

Later on, as a further test of his social commitment on a different level, he even blew a short-lived acting career because of his refusal to participate in cigarette commercials.

"I just felt a responsibility not to do them," he says, "and I feel that same commitment toward animals. I also don't litter, and I don't kill things."

He does, however, punch things, as we shall see.

After breakfast on the morning in question, Garrett was driving home when, lo, he saw the pickup again with the dog on the roof of the camper shell. He made a U-turn, followed the truck into a residential area, blocked it so it couldn't be moved and approached the driver.

As he recalls the incident, Garrett said to the man, "Excuse me, but you've got a dog on your roof, and he's about to fall off. It's against the law, and I can't let you go on. Please put the dog in the car."

Garrett repeated it for me in precisely the tone of its original delivery, full of sweetness and sincerity.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said 'Sure,' " Garrett remembered, "and started to drive off."

"What did you do?"

"I hit him."

Garrett, by the way, is 6-foot-2 and weighs 180 pounds. He is not exactly the Incredible Hulk, but neither is he Tiny Tim. The dog owner was smaller.

Recalling the incident does not please Garrett all that much. "I used force when I didn't have to," he says. "I didn't think. But at the time I figured it was the only way I could stop him."

The man, stunned by Garrett's sudden left jab, naturally wondered why the stranger had struck him.

Garrett explained as pleasantly as possible that it was the only way he could keep him there, then added, "If you try to move the truck, I'll hit you again."

He then advised the man to call the police, which he did. The cops came and arrested Garrett for assault, a charge that was subsequently dismissed by a judge who also could

not abide animal endangerment.

At one point, Garrett says, he thought the judge might climb over the bench and take a poke at the guy herself.

The dog owner filed a civil suit that was settled for $2,500. Garrett, whose free-lance writing income is at best modest, had to sell his pickup to raise the money. Now he is without a vehicle for his own work.

"I sort of won," Garrett says. "I lost my truck, but it was worth it. I don't expect anyone to do what I did or behave the way I behaved, but when I see something abusive, I can't sit still and let it happen."

Punching out people who abuse animals is probably not the best way to make a point, but you can't argue with Garrett's effectiveness in getting a message across beyond newspaper columns.

I am not inclined to physically assault those who do not agree with me, but if I am ever stopped by a sincere and amiable person who says, "Excuse me, but there's a dog on your roof," I sure as hell am going to listen.

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