Malnourished dog

St. Joseph resident Brandon Brownfield said he reported this dog to St. Joseph Animal Control and Rescue for being malnourished, though a dog still can be heard on the property. Animal control said the owner is in compliance with all city ordinances.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But if that picture is shared thousands of times, does it give a misleading impression of the story behind it?

Heather Przybyski, a St. Joseph resident, might be asking herself this question. This comes after a photo was posted to Facebook that appeared to show her dog standing over an empty bowl, with ribs protruding through its fur.

The message was clear. This dog is malnourished and needs to be saved.

The only problem is that the message wasn’t entirely correct. She said her dog was sick. St. Joseph Animal Control and Rescue reports that Przybyski is in compliance with local ordinances but that an investigation was ongoing.

Tell that to Best Life Animal Rescue, the private organization that intervened after the picture was posted to Facebook. The private group, fearing for the dog’s life, attempted to get the owner to surrender her animal.

Now, Przybyski no longer feels safe after her address was shared on social media. “There have been people who have threatened to come to our house and steal our animals,” she told News-Press NOW.

This episode illustrates the dangers of online vigilantism, the trend of well-meaning citizens whose private sleuthing goes spectacularly wrong. This was the case with a University of Arkansas professor who was misidentified as a white nationalist at the 2017 unrest in Charlottesville, Virigina. He wasn’t at the rally but needed police protection when his photo and address were posted online.

An unaccountable internet mob also fingered the wrong person after the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013.

The first problem with online detective work is that it’s not done by real detectives. Those are people with training, an understanding of due process and a knack for vetting facts. The second problem is that errors can go viral.

This attitude of “ready, fire and aim” was on display with the reaction to Przybyski and her dog. St. Joseph Animal Control officials suggest that the situation is complicated but that private groups don’t make it any easier to get to the bottom of things.

We’ve long advocated for the effectiveness of the private sector to deliver goods and services. This has been proven time and time again in fields ranging from health care to telecommunications. But the enforcement of laws and municipal codes is best left in the hands of the public sector, where agencies are accountable to taxpayers and citizens through elected councils or boards.

Animal Control is the taxpayer-supported entity with trained staff responsible for investigating the welfare of our four-legged population. Let’s just leave it to them.