Or at least cost them a lot of money?
NEW YORK CITY–– “Effective immediately, the ASPCA will be discontinuing the certification process for SAFER (Safety Assessment to Evaluate Re-homing),” the American SPCA announced on December 2, 2015 via the ASPCApro blog distributed to shelter workers.
The abrupt end to certifying SAFER test-givers appears to be meant to reduce potential liability to the ASPCA, even as the ASPCA continues promoting the test itself and pushing adoptions of pit bulls and other dangerous dog breeds.
But ASPCA president Matt Bershadker did not respond to an ANIMALS 24-7 request for comment.
Fatal & disfiguring attacks
Discontinuing certification of shelter workers trained to use the SAFER test to assess dogs comes after several years of soaring numbers of fatal and disfiguring attacks by dogs rehomed by shelters. Many of the dogs had cleared SAFER screening. Among them were the pit bull who killed Joshua Phillip Strother, age 6, on July 7, 2015, days after the dog was rehomed by the Asheville Humane Society, of Asheville, North Carolina.
Almost in the ASPCA’s own back yard, 16-year-old Briana Neira, of Patchogue, Long Island, on September 3, 2015 was rushed for emergency surgery after being facially mauled by a newly adopted pit bull who had reportedly passed SAFER screening at Animal Care & Control of New York City.
Alleged misuse of SAFER screening to save pit bulls with bite history, some of whom subsequently attacked people again, contributed to the resignation of former Albuquerque Animal Welfare Director Barbara Bruin, effective November 1, 2015.
Said the ASPCApro announcement, “The intent of SAFER certification was to help increase the likelihood that individuals were conducting the assessment safely, humanely, and as designed. While certification has been in place for over a decade, we have found that certification is not the most effective way to ensure the integrity of the assessment in daily operations. We have found that while individuals conduct the assessment and demonstrate they can score correctly for their certification, they are not consistently assessing in that manner throughout the year.
“Going forward,” the ASPCApro announcement continued, “we recommend self-checks with SAFER assessors on a regular basis (i.e., every 3 months). The frequency of checks will vary with each assessor’s skill level, comfort with assessment and the training protocol of the individual organization.”
Invented to pass pits?
Animal behaviorist Emily Weiss developed and introduced the SAFER test in 1999-2000, amid complaints by pit bull advocates that too many pit bulls were failing the older behavioral screening tests developed by Sue Sternberg of Rondout Kennels and others. The ASPCA hired Weiss as senior director of shelter behavior programs in 2005, and on May 5, 2007 made promoting the SAFER test an ASPCA program.
The ASPCA and Best Friends Animal Society were at the time scrambling to save 66 pit bulls impounded ten days earlier from football player and now convicted dogfighter Michael Vick, after the Humane Society of the U.S. had recommended them for euthanasia as too risky to rehome. While about a third of the Vick dogs were eventually rehomed after extensive remedial training, most were not.
When the SAFER test debuted, only two U.S. shelter dogs––wolf hybrids rehomed in 1988 and 1989––had ever killed anyone. Since 2007, however, U.S. shelter dogs are known to have killed at least 42 people. Among the dogs were 30 pit bulls, seven bull mastiffs, three Rottweilers, a husky, and a “Labrador mix” who appeared to be part pit bull.
In 2015 alone, through December 2, 45 shelter dogs, 38 of them pit bulls, are known to have killed three people, disfiguring 42.
Eugene Wesley Smith
While the SAFER test was used to evaluate the pit bull who killed Joshua Phillip Strother, what sort of testing (if any) was used to evaluate the dogs responsible for the other two fatalities inflicted in 2015 by shelter dogs is unknown.
The first shelter dog to kill someone in 2015 was a pit bull, reportedly adopted on May 17, 2014, who on January 7, killed Eugene Wesley Smith, 87, in Frederick County, Maryland.
Frederick County Division of Animal Control director David Luckenbaugh told ANIMALS 24-7 only that the pit bull was adopted “from an animal rescue organization based in the Baltimore area,” which Luckenbaugh declined to identify, and was never in custody of Frederick County before the fatal attack.
Anthony Riggs, 57, of Jackson, Tennessee adopted a five-year-old Rottweiler from Jackson-Madison County Rabies Control on the morning of November 13, 2015, five days after the dog was impounded as a stray.
Madison County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Tom Mapes told Katherine Burgess of the Jackson Sun that Riggs’ wife Kathy called the victim from work at about 1 p.m., but he did not answer. Kathy Riggs and co-worker Teresa Sanchez visited the Riggs home to investigate. Discovering Anthony Riggs already dead, both women were bitten at the scene themselves.
The Rottweiler “wasn’t growling or showing teeth––he just bit us like he did it all the time or something,” Sanchez posted to Facebook. “It was unreal what that dog did and he should NEVER have been adopted out period.”
Fluvanna SPCA sued
Claims resulting from attacks by shelter dogs are usually quietly settled out of court, often before litigation is filed.
Among the recent exceptions, the family of five-year-old Noah Viemeister in November 2015 filed a lawsuit seeking $250,000 in damages from the Fluvanna SPCA of Fluvanna County, Virginia.
The case, reported Courteney Stuart of Newsplex, “alleges gross negligence on the part of the shelter for adopting out a dog [who bit Noah Viemaeister] in the face three days after the dog was brought home.
Rehomed against advice
“The defendant knew, or at a minimum should have known that the dog was aggressive and should not have been adopted by a family with young children,” the plaintiffs contend.
Wrote Stuart, “According to an Albemarle County police report, the husky/German shepherd mix, named Max, was adopted by the Viemeister family on May 2, 2015. Shelter documents show that the dog had been adopted from the Fluvanna SPCA at least twice before the Viemeisters took him home,” Stuart continued. “In both cases, the records say Max was returned and previous owners said he was aggressive toward other animals.”
An unnamed “animal behavior specialist” told Stuart that she “advised that Max would not be a suitable candidate for adoption.”
The Fluvanna SPCA shelter director “told me they would look for a suitable placement,” the specialist said, “and I very specifically stated he could in no way ever be adopted to a family with children or men.”
“Live release” rates
The Fluvanna SPCA case, like the Albuquerque shelter dog attacks earlier in 2015, and similar incidents in Stamford, Connecticut and Roswell, New Mexico in 2014, spotlights the pressure shelter directors often feel to boost “live release” rates, even at risk of rehoming dogs of likely high risk.
Shelters trying to maintain a high “live release” rate without rehoming dangerous dogs increasingly often refuse to accept owner surrenders of high-risk breeds.
Refused by shelter, pit was roadkilled
In West Haven, Connecticut, NBCConnecticut.com reported on December 2, 2015, police were “investigating after a pit bull was struck and killed by a car hours after its owner tried to give the dog to an animal shelter. The shelter,” not named, “would not take it the dog and instead gave her a list of alternative animal rescues that take in vicious dogs,” the report said.
“Obviously, the shelter can’t release that to somebody who wants to accept a pet, adopt a pet, because the liability is tremendous,” West Haven Police Department spokesperson Dave Tammaro told NBCConnecticut.com.
“Not city responsibility”
“We don’t have the facilities,” Tammaro continued, hinting that the West Haven city shelter was the shelter in question. “We don’t have the resources to take all these animals and, especially if someone comes in and says, ‘Hey my dog is vicious.’ That’s not the city’s responsibility to take your dog that was mistrained.”
Since a civic duty to protect the community from dangerous dogs has been recognized in law since the origins of English Common Law, codified by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century BCE, the West Haven policy struck eight of the first nine people to comment on the NBCConnecticut.com report as a dereliction of responsibility.
West Haven has had relatively recent experience with the consequences of lenient enforcement of dog laws.
Three pit bulls belonging to West Haven resident Erica Hobdy, 30, on September 30, 2011 killed her 23-month-old niece Nevaeh Bryant. Other pit bulls sharing Hobdy’s home in various communities had attacked two children and a mail carrier in separate incidents in 2007 and 2008. Two of the three pit bulls who killed Bryant had in October 2010 killed a Jack Russell terrier.
Hobdy experienced no significant consequences for any of the priors.
Pleading guilty on October 11, 2012 to misdemeanor criminally negligent homicide for Bryant’s death, Hobdy received a suspended sentence of one year in jail, three years on probation, was prohibited from owning dogs or supervising children for three years, and was to complete 50 hours of community service, “preferably in an animal shelter,” the court stipulated. Hobdy was also to take a course in parenting.
Tomatoes & blood
West Haven has also had recent experience with dog attack liability.
Reported Christian Nolan on October 20, 2015 for the Connecticut Law Tribune, “A woman who was bitten on the hand by her neighbor’s dog and required surgery to repair torn away skin has settled with the animal’s owners for $250,000. On September 10, 2014, Joan Scarveles, who is in her seventies, was outside gardening at her West Haven home. As she picked some homegrown tomatoes, she offered to share some of them with her neighbor, Madalena Frater, who was sitting in her back yard. Frater and her husband Giovanni had a two-year old boxer mix named Gigi. As Scarveles reached through a fence that divides the two properties to hand Frater a tomato, Gigi came down from the deck in the back yard and bit Scarveles’ right hand,” inflicted degloving injuries similar to flaying the victim alive.
The ASPCA, with annual income of about $172 million per year, has reason to be concerned about cumulative liability in connection with the SAFER test, believed to be the most widely used by more shelters than any other.
The Insurance Information Institute in May 2015 reported that dog attack claims and other animal-related injuries accounted for more than a third of homeowners insurance liability payouts in 2014, up from 25% in 2003.
Total payouts rose from $322 million in 2003 to $413 million by 2010, and totaled more than $530 million in 2014.
The average payout per claim has increased since 2003 from circa $20,000 to about $30,000.
The ASPCA has also had relatively recent history of paying out significant sums to settle lawsuits. Notably, the ASPCA in December 2012 paid $9.3 million to Feld Entertainment Inc., producer of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, to settle two federal court cases originating from allegations brought by the ASPCA and other animal charities that Ringling abuses elephants, in purported violation of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The original case was filed against Ringling by a consortium of animal advocacy organizations also including the Animal Welfare Institute, the Animal Protection Institute, and the Fund for Animals. The Humane Society of the U.S. became involved after the Fund for Animals merged into HSUS in 2005. The Born Free Foundation was brought into the case after absorbing the Animal Protection Institute at the end of 2007.
After the ASPCA settled with Ringling, HSUS and the other codefendants in May 2014 paid Feld Entertainment $15.75 million to settle the Feld claims against them.
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