Within hours after they arrive at animal shelters, healthy cats and dogs of all descriptions land on a list that will determine their fates.
Young animals of favored breeds, including dachshunds and Persian cats, typically are slated for the adoption floor. Pit bulls, ubiquitous black cats, shy mutts and yappy Chihuahuas might get a place on the “rescue list,” offered to groups dedicated to saving animals deemed less likely to be adopted from shelters.
The most unfortunate of the lot, animals that are deemed dangerous, usually get a date in the euthanasia room.
How do shelters, the temporary guardians of tens of thousands of animals every year in Sacramento County, decide which creatures are “adoptable” or “dangerous,” and what if a potential owner disagrees?
The question is at the center of a debate playing out in federal court in Sacramento, where a lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a nonprofit rescue group, Scooter’s Pals of Grass Valley, that wanted to claim a Labrador retriever that had bitten a child. Placer County animal control officials deemed the dog dangerous and killed it, according to the rescue group, without first holding a required hearing to address its level of viciousness.
Placer County’s animal services manager, Mike Winters, declined to comment on the lawsuit but said the shelter follows the “letter of the law” when it comes to handling such cases. “We have a good relationship with rescue groups, which provide a real service to all shelters,” he said.
The suit highlights the delicate questions that shelter managers must confront in balancing the rights of pet owners and rescue groups vs. the public’s safety, while managing overcrowded kennels and a constantly changing population of animal residents.
“It’s something I deal with every single day,” said Dan Torres, chief animal control officer for the city of Sacramento. “We take the situation very seriously.”
In the unusual lawsuit, filed recently in U.S. District Court, Scooter’s Pals claims that Placer County violated the group’s constitutional rights to due process and against unreasonable search and seizure when it kept and then killed Charlie, a Labrador mix that had attacked a child and caused injuries that required dozens of stitches.
A Labrador rescue group first obtained the dog from a shelter last year and found a home for him in Placer County. After the biting incident, Scooter’s Pals claimed Charlie and sought to save him, with the support of the family whose child the dog hurt, said Susan Wallace, founder of the group.
According to the suit, Scooter’s Pals petitioned for a hearing but Placer County ignored the request and killed the dog in violation of its own policies and state law.
“We had a right to a hearing,” said Wallace, who insisted that Charlie had no previous history of biting and may have been provoked. “But they didn’t care. They killed Charlie quickly and intentionally.”
In the stressful world of shelter operations, workers must daily make decisions about which animals live and which ones die. “It’s a very painful process for everyone,” said Penny Cistaro, chief operating officer at the Sacramento SPCA and former manager of the Sacramento city shelter.
Unlike municipal shelters, private nonprofit groups such as the SPCA are not obligated to provide “animal control,” responding to calls of barking dogs or bites. Such agencies have fewer potential conflicts with the public, but they do have to make sure their kennels are filled with animals that “have the best chance of finding a new home,” a process that can be wrenching, said Cistaro.
“We have to make euthanasia decisions on a daily basis, but we make sure to exhaust all efforts to place an animal either in our kennels or in rescue,” she said. Rescue groups are sometimes willing to take older animals, or those with health or behavioral problems that many shelters would put to death.
Charlie, said Wallace, was one of those animals. He had been relinquished to the SPCA because he was too active for his elderly owners to handle. Central Valley California Lab Retriever Rescue claimed him and later found him a home.
Scooter’s Pals stepped in on the dog’s behalf after learning that Charlie bit the new owner’s child, said Wallace. She said Scooter’s Pals had a volunteer who had “fostered” Charlie and wanted to adopt him.
By that time, the child’s parents had signed Charlie over to Placer County animal control, unwittingly putting him on the road to death row, according to the lawsuit. Wallace found out and intervened, requesting a “vicious-dog” hearing and telling shelter personnel that Scooter’s Pals wanted Charlie and would abide by any restrictions on the dog set by a hearing officer. The previous owners, hoping to save the dog, rescinded their agreement to turn over the animal to Placer County and gave ownership to Scooter’s Pals.
Three days later, “defendant ignored the law and euthanized Charlie,” the lawsuit says.
Jill Telfer, an animal law specialist representing Scooter’s Pals, said the county may challenge whether the rescue group was the dog’s true owner and had the legal right to step in on Charlie’s behalf. But state law makes it clear, she said, that rescue groups are allowed to claim dogs headed for euthanasia as long as they agree to certain restrictions designed to protect the public.
Animal shelters quietly put animals to death on a routine basis, performing euthanasia on creatures that are severely ill or injured, dangerously aggressive or simply because kennels are overcrowded.
It is only when an animal is removed from its owner by authorities after injuring or killing another animal or person that the court intervenes. Sacramento City Animal Control alone handled more than 300 such cases last year, Torres said.
California’s Food and Agricultural Code defines “potentially dangerous” dogs in part as any dog that “when unprovoked, bites a person” and causes a significant injury. “Vicious dogs” are defined as those that inflict severe injury or death.
Local animal control or law enforcement officers investigate such cases. If an officer finds probable cause that a dog is potentially dangerous or vicious, he must notify the owner. If the owner agrees, the animal is put to death. Otherwise, the officer schedules a hearing where evidence on both sides can be presented, according to state law.
A hearing officer makes the final determination of the dog’s designation. The officer can order the animal put to death, or spare it and place specific restrictions on its owners, such as special fencing, muzzling and liability insurance coverage.
Wallace said Scooter’s Pals could have demonstrated that Charlie was a “good dog” under the right circumstances but that the group never got the chance. The group is asking for a restraining order preventing Placer County from “repeating the unlawful policies,” and for unspecified damages.
“I just want to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again,” said Wallace. “These people have to be careful when they kill dogs, because when you make that kind of mistake you can’t undo it.”
© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.