Colleagues Beset by Disaster Set Bitterness Aside
One forgives employee who set clinic on fire

Published: October 31, 2008
By Edie Lau

Poulsbo, Wash. -- From the waiting room of Dr. Michael Cable’s small-animal clinic, you have a direct view into the veterinarian’s office, into his exam room and into the boxes holding singed paperwork that, for the moment, make up his files.

This is how the Big Valley Animal Care center is making do since an arsonist torched the clinic three months ago: working out of a big garage warmed by space heaters, with no privacy whatsoever.

The difficult situation is made even more unhappy by the fact that the clinic was set on fire by one of the veterinarian’s own employees.

And yet, for all the bad feelings triggered by the disaster -- anger and grief over losing an 18-year-old pet cat, weariness from the chore of rebuilding -- one thing Cable does not feel is a need for retribution.

He argued for mercy for the employee, 52-year-old Alfred Friedrich, who pleaded guilty to first-degree arson in Kitsap County Superior Court. “Al has documented mental issues, and emphasis should be on aiding him and his recovery,” Cable wrote in a victim's statement filed with the court. “I feel strongly that prison is not where Al should be.”

Cable said he knew from the time his manager hired Friedrich 2-1/2 years ago that the man had mental deficiencies. He couldn't handle stress well, but he was good at his job, which entailed cleaning kennels and walking dogs who stayed at the “pet resort” side of Cable’s business.

“He liked animals,” Cable said. “He was a good worker.”

From Cable’s perspective, he and Friedrich got along fine. At one point, Cable enabled his employee to cut back on his 20-mile commute home by allowing him to park a camper on clinic property, a 30-acre farm in western Washington near Puget Sound.

Cable said he also paid Friedrich a Christmas bonus last year even though Friedrich quit a few months before the holidays to take a better-paying job. However, after a few months, Friedrich asked to come back, saying the other job was too stressful. And Cable was glad to see him.

The day of the fire, Aug. 5, Friedrich’s paycheck was missing four days of vacation pay. He brought it up to Cable, who didn’t dispute the point, and advised his employee to have the pet resort manager make the correction. Unfortunately, the manager was out of town that day. Cable, meanwhile, left the clinic for a meeting.

Cable found out later that Friedrich called his manager 10 times that day, with increasing agitation. By 7 that night, something snapped. Cable said Friedrich went to the resort next door for a key to the clinic, entered, and set the place on fire with gasoline and a lighter.

No patients were staying overnight at the clinic that day, but two people were home in an apartment on the second floor of the building -- what used to be a hayloft in the converted 80-year-old barn. And Cable’s 18-year-old pet cat Willow was in the office.

Cable said Friedrich knocked on the door of the apartment and warned the residents to get out. He speculates that had Friedrich known Willow was inside, he might never have set the fire. None of the 50 to 60 boarders at the pet resort was harmed.

“It's really hard to understand somebody like Al and his problems,” said Cable, considering their amicable relationship. “It was surprising to me that he’d do that to me. Which tells me that you don't know what goes on in a person's mind.”

In 36 years as a veterinarian and employer, Cable said, he’d never had a major problem with an employee. Born in Montana and trained at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Cable had an equine practice for a time before switching to dogs and cats. He’s also segued from conventional medicine to alternative medicine, employing treatments such as acupuncture and Chinese herbs.

But that doesn’t mean, Cable said, he’s the kind of guy who meditates to control anger or that he subscribes to some kind of otherworldly philosophy. He’s simply practical.

“I’ll get really, really, really mad if I do something like back my car into a garage door,” Cable said. “It's kind of like, the bigger the problem, the less I get mad. It doesn’t do any good to get mad. It doesn't do any good to get mad about the small stuff either,” he added. “But it didn’t do any good to get mad about the fire. I just stood by the fence and watched it burn.”

Dr. W. Mark Cousins completely understands. The cat doctor in New Orleans watched his own clinic burn down in 2002 when an arsonist attacked an adjoining building. Cousins rebuilt his facility over the next two years, only to have to flee Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The clinic escaped heavy damage in the ensuing flood, but the loss to the community as a whole was devastating. Three years later, recovery is yet incomplete.

But Cousins is irrepressible. During his fire, as the building burned on a Friday morning, he called his staff to a meeting on the street corner. “I told them, ‘Nobody’s losing a job,’ ” he said. “ ‘Nobody’s missing a payroll. I expect everybody at my house on Monday morning.’ I had no idea how we’d do that. It was more adrenalin-laced bravado on my part.”

He lived up to his word. And when Cousins learned that 28 cats in his care had died in the fire -- some patients, some boarders -- he and his associate visited the homes of every family involved, bringing each a Steuben crystal cat figurine.

“We gave them that as a memento of closure, and sat down with every single family,” Cousins said. “I felt it was important that they hear from us what happened.”

Dealing with Katrina so soon after the fire was not easy, but again, Cousins would not be beat. “I think it's self-defeating (to) say ‘Why me?’ You have to say ‘Why not me?’ and consider that for whatever reasons, things happen,” he said.

“If you harbor bitterness and you harbor negativity, you're only going to be the loser,” he said. “It does nothing but eat you up inside. It will eventually tear you up.”

Back in Washington, Cable is about three months away from moving into his rebuilt clinic. His former employee was sentenced in October to 23 months in state prison.

The two haven’t spoken since the day of the fire, but Cable has long forgiven the man. He gave him that vacation back pay (“It was 240 bucks,” Cable said with a shrug) and says that if asked -- and if his insurance company didn’t object -- he would give the fellow his job back.

“Who else,” he asked, “is going to hire him?”

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