ELEPHANT BUTTE, N.M. — This is the story of a leash, a law and a city’s dueling definitions of compassion. It is a story of limits tested and stretched; of strife, threats and, possibly, compromise.
Mostly, though, it is a story about a dog named Blue who, this week, brought this small desert city together after nearly tearing it apart.
The City Council held a meeting on Wednesday to decide Blue’s fate. He was born here 11 years ago and was soon abandoned to wander the streets, even before Elephant Butte — sandwiched between a city named Truth or Consequences and a desert basin called the Jornada del Muerto, the route of a dead man — became a city. He has been no one’s dog, or everybody’s dog.
Blue’s thick fur is speckled with gray, a trademark of his breed — he is an Australian cattle dog — but also a sign of his age. His legs are too feeble to run; his walk is more like a plod. There was a time when he could dash across State Highway 195 to “do his business,” as one supporter put it, in a spot that he has used for as long as anyone can remember.
Now, cars must stop and wait, and wait, and wait, to give Blue the time he needs to cross the road.
Some people just do not like that; others do not trust him. At the meeting, a man wondered why his dogs must be leashed and locked under city law if Blue can travel unrestrained. Sitting next to him was a woman wearing a sticker over her heart that read, “Keep Blue Free.”
“The thing that I hate the most about this is to see our community divided,” Gerald LaFont, a city councilman, told the audience, indignantly. “While a lot of people love Blue, you’ve got to remember this: Blue is a dog.”
Blue has a bank account to keep donations he has received by mail and in person at the Butte General Store and Marine, where he hangs out ($1,800 was its balance). He has a Facebook page with twice as many followers (2,902 as of Friday) as there are residents in Elephant Butte (population 1,431, excluding the tourists who flock here every summer to boat and fish on the reservoir).
He also has a lawyer from Albuquerque, Hilary A. Noskin.
“I believe in the law,” said Ms. Noskin, who has a vacation home here and is working pro bono. “But sometimes people get carried away.”
The story began two years ago, when a woman filed a complaint against Blue, saying he had threatened her while she walked her dogs. Janice Connor and her partner Bob Owen, who own the general store, recalled being told that if they neutered Blue, all troubles would go away.
And for about 18 months, they did. Then, on Jan. 4, the City Council imposed strict requirements for vicious dogs, including $100,000 in liability insurance from their owners, as response to a woman’s mauling by four pit bulls in neighboring Truth or Consequences.
In February, a code-enforcement officer who was out checking on compliance fined Mr. Owen for failing to keep Blue on a leash.
Mr. Owen contested the fine in court and the judge gave him a reprieve: seven months to resolve the situation. The Council disagreed with the ruling, saying in a motion that the court had no authority to delay punishment prescribed by the “legislative act of a municipality” unless it brought Mr. Owen to trial.
A trial is scheduled for Aug. 9.
Blue’s supporters — there are a lot of them here — geared up for a fight. The man who runs Casa Taco, a restaurant where Blue used to spend his days until it temporarily closed four years ago after the death of its former owner, created the Facebook page. Ms. Connor started an online petition at Change.org, gathering more than 700 signatures in 15 days.
Postcards began pouring into the general store. “I’m rooting for you,” read one from Webster, Fla.; “Go Blue!!!,” read another from Athens, Tex.
Mr. Owen, meanwhile, applied for a variance to the city’s leash law, allowing Blue to keep on living as he always had, leash-free, which is what prompted Wednesday’s meeting.
It drew a record crowd to the municipal building. The Council chambers filled to capacity, and so did the adjoining courtroom.
About a dozen people listened in on the action from speakers in the parking lot.
Mayor Eunice Kent spoke first, saying that the discussion was not, as rumor would have it, about kicking Blue out or putting him to sleep.
“I took an oath of office to uphold the law,” Mrs. Kent said. “We want to hear your opinions, and we want to hear solutions, but they have to be within the law.”
One woman suggested turning Blue into the city’s mascot, which presumably would afford him rights and protections not extended to the average dog. Another said the city should install crosswalks on State Highway 195 to facilitate Blue’s crossing (if he used it, that is).
Cindy Torres, 59, who has had a realty office here for 20 years, suggested, “Why not have a mayoral proclamation making Blue a coyote?” (“I’m serious,” she said gravely afterward.)
Then, Mr. Owen took to the microphone. “There are more important issues this community needs to deal with,” he said, “but it’s really good to see it come alive over this.”
Mrs. Kent stopped the testimony after an hour. The city will grant Ms. Connor and Mr. Owen, Blue’s guardians, an exception to its ordinance, she said, so they can install an electronic fence around the general store’s property, a large corner lot that also has a gas station and a boat repair shop. The dog would be shocked if he tried to cross the fence.
Mrs. Kent and Ms. Connor hugged after the meeting.