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Animal shelter euthanizations provoke outcry

3/7/2013

By ANGIE HAFLICH

By ANGIE HAFLICH

ahaflich@gctelegram.com

Three dog euthanizations performed at the Garden City Animal Shelter on Feb. 26 have prompted a great deal of concern from local residents, who, primarily through social media, are calling for changes in policies and ordinances governing the disposition of animals. The strong reaction stems from the assumption that at least two of the three dogs were scheduled to be transferred to other rescues and that the shelter was not full when the dogs were euthanized.

According to Capt. Dave Smith, who oversees the animal control division of the Garden City Police Department, only one of the three dogs, which included a young adult pregnant female terrier, a young adult female shepherd mix and a 4-to 6-month old male pit bull mix puppy, had a rescue commitment.

"The only one that was slated to go (to another rescue) was that terrier," Smith said.

According to Teri Sutherlin, president and acting financial secretary for the Finney County Humane Society, which aids the shelter in finding alternative rescue facilities, adoption or foster parents for dogs and cats, there was an intention to send the shepherd mix to the Denver Dumb Friends League, but that particular shelter doesn't pre-approve transfers.

Smith said that on Feb. 25 and 26, Shelter Manager Amanda Hermann spoke with humane society personnel, who told her there was no transfer commitment for the shepherd mix.

In the case of the terrier that was pregnant and due to give birth any day, Sutherlin said Atchison Animal Control made a commitment to take the dog at its facility and the transfer was scheduled to take place March 1.

There was no rescue commitment for the pit bull mix.

"The pit bull mix, we were desperately working on getting a rescue in place and two hours after it was put down, the rescue came through," Sutherlin said.

Smith said that whether a dog has a commitment to go to another rescue, if it is deemed to be aggressive or vicious, the transfer does not take place due to the city's potential liability, even after another rescue has adopted the dog out to someone.

"The judge or jury would have to determine where the liability attaches and how much attaches where, but I would think that since the dog originated at our facility, that liability would attach, especially if it was displaying signs of aggression while at our facility," he said.

According to Smith, the female terrier was impounded on Feb. 6 by a county animal control officer.

"That dog was scheduled to be transferred on March 1, but based on its level of aggressiveness, we made the decision, based on the recommendation of the subject experts, to put the dog down," Smith said.

In that case, it was the recommendation of Dr. E. David Sells of the Garden City Veterinary Clinic, who acts as the licensed vet of the shelter.

"I can't tell you why dogs become aggressive and why they don't and that's why we rely on our trained personnel and veterinarians," Smith said.

Sgt. Michael Reagle said the city would not be able to fund a functioning shelter without operating under a veterinarian's license.

"We must operate under a veterinarian's license in order to maintain drugs for such things as vaccinating and euthanizing at the shelter. In the particular case, the veterinarian felt the dogs displayed aggressive behavior and recommended that they be euthanized.¬ Since we operate under the veterinarian and he has more expertise on these matters, we followed his judgment and the dogs were euthanized," he said.

Drawing on his 33 years of experience with animal behavior, Sells, who has served as the shelter's vet for the past 10 years, said that he made the recommendation that the pregnant terrier be euthanized.

"That dog was showing aggressive behavior from the aspect of, while being held, just me trying to get close to her, she was snarling, she was trying to bite, she was actually growling at me. And the behavior was just such that after being there almost two and a half weeks, and she's showing aggressive behavior still, I'm sorry, that is not an acceptable dog and it needs to be put down," Sells said.

Smith said the male pit bull mix was impounded on Feb. 15 by a county animal control officer.

"That dog, upon its intake, its initial admission into the shelter, it was aggressive, but there were several people, including our shelter staff that were working with that animal to calm it down and help make it more adoptable, but when the dog was evaluated on the 26th, it exhibited signs of aggression and so again, not to assume the liability, the decision was made to euthanize it," Smith said.

Sells said he observed the pit bull mix on two separate occasions and found it to display aggressive behavior. In that case, he told a shelter employee, after the dog had snarled and growled at him the first time, that they would either have to work with it or it would have to be put down. In a separate incident, Sells said the dog let him pet it, but after placing it back in its cage, it exhibited the same aggressive behavior as it did the previous time. Before telling shelter staff that the dog put down, Sells said he first contacted the humane society to see if there was a rescue lined up and when he was told there was not, he advised the shelter staff to euthanize it.

In both of those cases, Sells said in his experience, there is no hope of rehabilitation.

"When they show aggressive behavior, they need to be put down, because in my opinion, there's no sense in going to a rescue or anywhere with them because eventually, someone's going to get nailed by them," he said.

Smith said the shepherd mix was impounded on Jan. 29 by a city animal control officer.

"That was a case where the dog was surrendered by its owner and when it was impounded and started to become aggressive toward other animals. Even though it was exhibiting those signs of aggression toward other animals, it remained available until Feb. 26. ... That's a significant amount of time. If an animal hasn't been adopted in that roughly one-month period, the chances of it being adopted are slim. There hadn't been any arrangements made for that animal to be transferred anywhere, so based on its level of aggressiveness and no interest in that animal, it was euthanized," Smith said.

Sells said he wasn't involved in that particular case.

"The other one, I have no idea about that dog, because I had nothing to do with that one. That one, the shelter decided to put that down," Sells said. "But it may have been one I saw earlier and said, 'That dog needs to be put down.'"

Smith said Hermann, the shelter manager, made the decision to euthanize the shepherd mix, based on its level of aggressiveness in the shelter.

"Our shelter manager is ultimately tasked with that responsibility and that decision making," Smith said, "We will follow a vet's recommendation, but we don't rely on that. The shelter manager is tasked with making those decisions."

Hermann could not be reached for comment.

Much of the assumptions surrounding the euthanizations is that they were performed by Finney County Animal Control Officer Karen Wesley. However, Sheriff Kevin Bascue said Wesley was only involved in capturing and impounding the dogs.

"The county animal control officer did not make the decision to euthanize them, nor did the county animal control officer euthanize the animals," Bascue said.

According to Smith, all three dogs were euthanized by shelter personnel.

"Our shelter staff are trained in and certified in euthanasia. I don't know who actually performed those, specifically, but it would have been our shelter staff," Smith said.

He also said that both animal control officers and shelter personnel have the same goal as everyone else, which is to get as many dogs adopted or rescued, as possible. In line with this goal, Smith said that they can't risk damaging any the relationships they have established with other rescues.

"We are as transparent as it gets. There's nothing for us to hide and we're certainly not going to hide anything from a rescue facility that we want to transfer a dog to, or that the humane society wants to transfer a dog to, because we have to maintain those relationships," he said.

Sutherlin said that pinning the blame on any one person is misdirected because she feels that the real issue is with the policy and city ordinance.

"The problem is the investment of time, energy and resources had been invested in saving some of these animals, getting them to rescue and then that got aborted. Part of what we want to get into place, as policy, is when an animal has been slated for the rescue, they've just gone off the table, they're out of everybody's control, they're ours," she said.

Sutherlin also said that oftentimes, the decision to euthanize is, in her opinion, too subjective.

"The problem that we're having as an advocacy group is that there sometimes doesn't seem to be rhyme or reason to decisions that get made, and while there are policies in place at the shelter, the challenge that we are wanting to discuss is there is a lot of authority, but there's no real accountability. So there's all of this at (an individual's) discretion, but there's no way to appeal; there's no way to get a second opinion and that's part of what we're hoping to be able to sit down and discuss and that is going to happen," she said. "I want rules that make sense and are logical."

She added that the public wants happy endings and whenever a puppy or kitten is euthanized, it is difficult for people to wrap their mind around the idea that there was no way to work with that animal.

"They don't understand, so they're questioning and they have the right to be mad. They have the right to question (the) policy," Sutherlin said.

Kathy Fleury, Garden City, is one of the several concerned citizens who have written emails and made calls to the city and county.

"I just wanted to let someone know that something needs to be changed at the shelter when dogs that have rescue commitments are being put down (one with puppies due, no less)," Fleury said. "These dogs had people ready to love them and take care of their needs, whatever those needs may have been. I hope and pray that a lot of good changes come from this sad story."

Garden City Manager Matt Allen said he has looked into the incidents and is open to hearing suggestions from both the public and the Finney County Humane Society.

"We're open to their suggestions. I think we always have been and the captain (Smith) certainly is. We welcome conversations with them about how we can improve things," Allen said.

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