Falling Starr 

While supporters rally around the SPCA's Robin Starr after the tragic death of her dog, ethicists say the fallout is far from over.

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Mercy never was a strong suit for the chief executive of the Richmond Society to Prevent Cruelty to Animals, a tireless advocate for animal rights. Robin Starr frequently and publicly called for prosecution in animal cases regardless of intent or circumstance.

So the mercy toward her being shown by city investigators and prosecutors, who appear unanimous in their conclusion that Starr committed no crime, could well serve as a sort of poetic justice, say a panel of academic and professional ethicists.

Because Starr appears to have avoided the same prosecutorial scrutiny that others have faced at her insistence, that not only badly weakens her ability to call for prosecutions in the future, it may ethically hamstring her ability to lead her organization, says Randy Cohen, best known as the nationally syndicated ethics columnist with The New York Times.

Louie, Starr's elderly cocker spaniel poodle mix, died of heat stroke two weeks ago. His death came after Starr's husband, Ed Starr, placed the beloved pet in the family station wagon before his wife drove to work and, according to Robin Starr, failed to tell her he had done so. Louie was stuck in the hot car for four hours before Starr discovered him and rushed him to two local animal hospitals before he finally succumbed, she says.

On Friday, city investigators concluded their investigation and determined that Starr would not be charged in the case. In the court of public opinion, that could prove problematic for Starr, says Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, because the best way to know what she knew is to have the facts reviewed in a courtroom. To do otherwise may allow lingering questions in the public's mind about why Starr did not face the same scrutiny that she's so vocally advocated for others.

Ethicist Cohen says the quick defense — including public statements of support from a national SPCA organization and from Starr's board — were premature. “The facts of the case have to come out,” he says. “If it turns out she did not know [Louie was in the car], an important point in getting to the facts is ‘Did you know?’ or ‘Should you have known?’”

A clear path to fact-finding is through the courts, says Caplan, who writes frequently on animal rights and animal welfare issues. “I can tell you when these kinds of situations arise where someone unintentionally or accidentally causes harm to an animal or a baby, you do have to prosecute because you want to establish the facts accurately.”

“Prosecution in part establishes the facts,” Caplan says. Starr “can say what she wants, the [SPCA] can say what it wants, but in the courtroom under cross-examination, you establish what really happened.”

Joanne B. Ciulla, a University of Richmond ethics professor and the Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics, agrees: “The point is she's got to get punished for her to even be able to carry on with her job. Otherwise, if there's no punishment and she goes on with her job, she may as well quit because she has no credibility anymore.”

Starr, a lawyer who almost single-handedly rebuilt Richmond's once-shamed animal shelter by pioneering a now-nationally recognized no-kill model at the local SPCA, earns $148,692 annually in her role as the organization's executive.

Paradoxically, even if Starr preferred prosecution — and possibly punishment — as a path to public redemption, she likely won't get it. Virginia animal cruelty laws — the same laws Starr often sought to be interpreted broadly — don't suggest Starr is guilty of a violation. At best, Starr would be guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor.

“I think it would be very hard for a prosecutor to make the facts of this case stick to this statute,” says Margaret “Mimi” Riley, a University of Virginia law professor specializing in animal rights law, though she acknowledges that it's not impossible to stretch to make the glove fit. “In parts of [the Virginia code] you have words like ‘willful,’ but the ‘willful’ word is not in the part that refers to leaving a dog in a car. I think you could make an argument that it could apply, but I don't think it would be a winning argument.”

Neither does Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring.

“Robin Starr's credibility as head of the SPCA is not my concern,” says Herring, whose office has had its share of clashes with Starr over her zealous push to prosecute in similar accidental animal deaths. “I can't use the criminal justice process to legitimize her role as the head of the SPCA, and I don't think she would want me to.”

Whether or not Starr is guilty, Cohen says, the opportunity to explain herself in the formal setting of a courtroom is the best way to clear the air. And in lieu of that opportunity — without the official seal of judicial approval — convincing a skeptical public is problematic.

“She has to explain to people, ‘Why should she be a special case?’” Cohen says. “That will be a tough argument — I don't see it.”

U.Va.'s Riley, who also teaches legal ethics, agrees that without prosecution Starr's search for the moral high ground may leave her high and dry. “She needs to find an alternative,” Riley says. “How can she put herself in a position where she can re-achieve that moral high ground? I've thought about what that [solution] might be and I haven't come up with one. If she can't find that, maybe she should resign.”

At tearful press meetings at the Richmond Times-Dispatch building on East Franklin Street last week — no explanation was given for why the event came more than a week after the dog's death — Starr maintained she was unaware that Louie was in her car when she left home for SPCA headquarters on Hermitage Road. The building carries her name. Her husband has said he didn't tell Starr he'd put the dog in the car that day, though according to the couple, Louie typically went to work with Starr.

Mike Burns, a partner at the Connecticut-based nonprofit management consultancy BWB Solutions, is not an ethicist, but says he's dealt with similar instances where the symbolic and literal head of a do-good nonprofit has been shown as fallible under similarly embarrassing circumstances.

With damage control in mind, Burns' take on how Starr and her organization should proceed runs entirely counter to the direction both parties are taking.

“Pretty awkward,” says Burns, assessing the Richmond SPCA's statement of support for its leader, as well as Starr's insistence that she'll remain in the position.

“There's an old negotiating technique about separating the issue from the people,” Burns says. “This is a public entity, it's not just hers. It's the board's, it's the donors' who own it. [They] don't want to get sucked into the mistake. … and say that that in any way diminishes the value of a no-kill facility.”

In other words, his advice to the organization would be to express support for Starr as she grieves her loss, but “they've got to separate from her.” At best, Burns would advise that someone like Starr assume a lower profile in soliciting large donors whose generosity is less likely to be adversely affected by headlines.

“Major donors don't tend to be as punitive as $15 donors,” he says, accurately reflecting the public support Starr has received from big-money supporters, and by contrast the downright hateful responses that bubbled and boiled for days on local blogs and Twitter after word of Louie's accidental death.

Cohen and other ethics experts and academics also view skeptically arguments put forth by Starr's supporters, including the ones proffered in a statement from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president and chief executive, Ed Sayres, that seek to weigh Louie's death against the lives of thousands of dogs Starr has saved.

“While some might unfortunately call for Robin's resignation as a result of this horrible accident,” Sayres is quoted as saying, “it is imperative that we focus on the thousands of animals' lives that she has saved through her work with the Richmond SPCA.”

But attempts to counterbalance the death of one animal against the lives of thousands of others just don't work, Cohen says — not when the offender in question built her reputation on saving them all.

“To say, ‘I’ve done countervailing good,' that doesn't work,” Cohen says. “Doing good works, in some religions it helps get you into heaven,” but earthly justice is not always Biblically consistent.

Some of Starr's harshest critics have sought to link Louie's tragic death to Starr's harsh public pillorying of disgraced NFL quarterback and Virginia native Michael Vick for his Surry County dog-fighting operation.

Ciulla at the University of Richmond has serious difficulties with allusions that attempt to link the two cases. “[Starr] made a mistake,” Ciulla says. “What Michael Vick did was he had a business plan that was against the law. My head wants to explode when I hear that analogy.”

All the same, in one important way the two stories may have ironic parallels — namely how the two disgraced public figures might emerge as voices for animal rights.

“Michael Vick could tell her that in your difficult time, you go through your trial and serve your time,” says University of Pennsylvania's Caplan. “If Michael Vick had been not charged and let off given all the testimony that was around, I don't think he would be playing in the NFL.”

Ethicists also have a tough time swallowing the argument that the death of Louie in Starr's hot car will “strengthen the credibility of the Richmond SPCA's leader,” as was asserted in a front-page Richmond Times-Dispatch story the day after the news broke.

“There are a lot of ways to look at these events, but I can't look at it from any angle where it's good for her,” Caplan says. “It may put her in a position where she has more empathy for people who forget their animals, but it doesn't make her occupying that job any easier. It makes her advocacy tempered with some more sympathy for human frailty. … but it doesn't do anything to diminish that suspicion that there's some hypocrisy having her in that position if there's not been some formal accounting of the case.”

Which leaves Starr's organization in the toughest spot of all.

 “Even if they come to the conclusion that her behavior is beyond reproach, which it seems many have, the symbolism of the event is likely to be an awful burden for the organization to bear,” says Terry Price, an ethics professor at the University of Richmond. “In the end, regardless of her responsibility for what happened, Ms. Starr's role as a leader will require her to consider the costs to the organization of staying on as CEO and the symbolic benefits of stepping down.” S


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