No more “Don’t ask, don’t tell” for pit bulls
RICHMOND, Virginia––The era of shelters and rescues concealing dog attack history from prospective adopters is over, says the Virginia state legislature, effective July 1, 2018.
But the widespread practice of hiding dogs’ violent histories cost Virginia Beach resident Margaret M. Colvin her life on June 1, 2017. Many other Virginians have suffered severe injuries or have lost pets to rehomed dogs, mostly pit bulls, whose bite histories were not disclosed.
Virginia SB 571, passed on March 30 2018, adds to the existing state animal care and control statutes a requirement that the bite histories of impounded or owner-surrendered dogs must be investigated, and must be disclosed to prospective adopters.
Specifically, SB 571 states, “Any custodian of a releasing agency, animal control officer, law enforcement officer, or humane investigator, upon taking custody of any dog or cat in the course of his official duties, shall ask and document whether, if known, the dog or cat has bitten a person or other animal and the circumstances and date of such bite.”
First U.S. state to require rehomers to tell the truth
While this would appear to be a routine and “common sense” procedure, Virginia appears to be the first U.S. state to require it.
Continues SB 571, “ Any custodian of a releasing agency, animal control officer, law enforcement officer, or humane investigator, upon release of a dog or cat for adoption, return to a rightful owner, or transfer to another agency, shall disclose, if known, that the dog or cat has bitten a person or other animal and the circumstances and date of such bite.”
SB 571 concludes by stipulating that “Violation of this section is a Class 3 misdemeanor.”
This makes Virginia the first state to both require animal adoption agencies to disclose bite history to prospective adopters, and criminalize withholding bite history.
New law responds to Margaret Colvin death
SB 571 responds specifically to the fatal mauling of Margaret M. Colvin by a pit bull named Blue, just six hours after Forever Home Rescue & Rehabilitation delivered him to her daughter Linda Colvin Patterson.
Surrendered to the New York City Animal Care Centers’ Manhattan shelter in December 2016 after biting a child, Blue was in custody of at least five other rescue organizations before Forever Home Rescue & Rehabilitation rehomed him on April 22, 2017 to Tia Walke of Virginia Beach.
Walke returned Blue to Forever Home Rescue & Rehabilitation due to aggressive behavior just two days later, she told Aliah Hordges of WTKR News 3.
None of this was disclosed to the Colvin family, Linda Colvin Patterson contends in a lawsuit filed against Forever Home Rescue & Rehabilitation, seeking $5 million in damages.
The death of Margaret Colvin was hardly an isolated incident.
$3.5 million lawsuit vs. Fairfax County
Fairfax County, Virginia resident Barry McCabe on May 15, 2018 sued the Fairfax County Animal Shelter for compensatory damages of “not less than $2.5 million,” plus punitive damages of “not less than $1 million” for a pit bull attack that on June 30, 2016 killed McCabe’s Cavalier King Charles spaniel Kaiser, and left McCabe himself with “lacerations, bite wounds, and injuries to his hands, arms, shoulder, back, and spinal region.”
According to the lawsuit, “McCabe’s recovery includes shoulder reconstruction surgery and rehabilitation, more than 200 chiropractic visits, and seven epidurals for his spinal injuries.”
The pit bull who killed Kaiser and injured McCabe, McCabe alleges, “was transferred to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter from another Virginia public animal shelter, Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center, located in Augusta County, Virginia.”
Rehomed pit bull killed cat
This was after the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center “adopted Odin to his first known owner. Odin attacked and killed a family cat” within hours, and was returned to the Shenandoah Valley Animal Services Center the next day.
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter “was aware of Odin’s violent history and still accepted Odin into their custody,” the McCabe lawsuit says.
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter rehomed Odin to persons who returned him because “the pit bull constantly escaped his chain tethering, jumped over their property’ s six-foot fence, and was returned home by local police,” recounts the lawsuit.
“The next owner to adopt Odin returned the pit bull to the Fairfax County Animal Shelter because she feared for her life,” charges the McCabe lawsuit.
Shelter allegedly “destroyed paperwork”
This person demanded “owner requested euthanasia” service, the lawsuit states, which according to Fairfax County Animal Shelter policy was to be provided if an animal’s “temperament, behavior in the shelter or behavior history, or medical condition makes [the animal] unable to be placed for adoption or sent to rescue.”
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter “intentionally disregarded Owner #3’s demand and destroyed paperwork completed by Owner #3 to prevent Odin’s euthanasia,” the McCabe lawsuit alleges, adding that “Odin also attacked another dog while in custody” of the county shelter.
During two behavioral evaluations, the lawsuit states, Fairfax County Animal shelter staff “explicitly noted Odin’s tendency to attack smaller animals and Odin’s aggressiveness”; “deliberately withheld information related to Odin’s aggression and biting from the public and from those who sought to adopt [him]; and changed the information, including breed, name, and historical information, of Odin to disconnect Odin,” eventually also known as Maple and Tank, “from his past behavior and to encourage his adoption.”
Eventually, the McCabe lawsuit alleges, the Fairfax County Animal Shelter rehomed Odin yet again to the person who had him when he killed Kaiser and injured McCabe.
Shelter director favored withholding info
Then-Fairfax County Animal Shelter director Kristen Auerbach had on February 18, 2016 published an article on the web site of the pro-pit bull Animal Farm Foundation arguing that animal shelters should withhold information about potentially dangerous dogs from prospective adopters until after they become seriously interested in a dog.
Boasting on her resumé of having “helped overturn pit bull adoption restrictions,” Auerbach went on to become deputy chief animal services officer at the Austin Animal Center, in Austin, Texas, where her “playgroups” led to repeated maulings of other dogs by impounded pit bulls, and a 35% rise in dog attacks in the community since 2011 appeared to accelerate.
(See What is the Austin Animal Center doing to dogs in the name of “play”? and Was shooting cat with arrow prelude to a “Texas no-kill massacre”?)
Auerbach in September 2017 moved on to become adoption coordinator at the Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, where identifying dogs by breed was stopped just before her arrival.
Clark Jones says
This story should be forwarded to every municipal manager, animal services director, and county commissioner in the country… A good manager would try to avert lawsuits. It would look especially bad for the manager, if they ignore “full disclosure” of bite history… and a mauling / death occurs. Then they are culpable.
Jamaka Petzak says
Progress, but I take issue with including cats in this, since cats do not maim and kill. And there need to be laws made and enforced regarding dogs that harm or take the life of cats. Such killer dogs need to be destroyed immediately, never returned to shelters for re-adoption.
Forensic Shelter Vet says
Disregarding public safety should NEVER be worn as a badge of honor, as former Fairfax County Animal Shelter director Kristen Auerbach propagates. These dangerous animals are maiming and killing people and their pets, as well as taking the place of other wonderful shelter dogs who could be adopted into the same homes (who could potentially be euthanized if not adopted in a timely manner), as shelters force fractious pit bull and pit bull mixed breed dog adoptions on unaware or unschooled potential adopters. Speaking as a former shelter vet at one of the largest multi-shelter municipal animal control agencies in the country, I can say that on my watch this unbelievable current practice would never have been allowed, and with a clear conscience I can say that we humanely cared for and protected the animals and the people in the community. Rehoming dangerous dogs is not progress. Instead, each of these incidents promotes the exact impression pit bull advocates protest is not true about this breed. The unrealistic position that every pit (or dogs of any breed for that matter) should or must be adopted is not only careless, but can potentially result in the death of an innocent child or adult or beloved pet. Consider if you are willing to gamble with that. Dangerous animals should be humanely euthanized – there is no other option.
Merritt Clifton says
Dena Mangiamele is the author of Stray: A Shelter Veterinarian’s Reflection on Triumph & Tragedy.
Good for Virginia. And such a humiliating shame for it to come to this for sheltering and rescue, being told to do what they once did automatically.
I was at my county pound last year, looking for a dog. There were roughly 75 pit bulls but one kennel held a non-pit bull, a shaggy and seemingly pleasant dog I recognized from the previous week. I remembered reading the paperwork and seeing it had been transferred in to my suburban/rural shelter from an urban shelter in a shelter partner program. The previous week, there had been an “I’m adopted!” sign on the kennel, but here he was still. I read carefully through the paperwork available on the kennel clipboard, which was mostly vet work. There were some behavior issues, but mostly about high energy levels. That is a classic description of shaggy herding dogs, and I actually liked it – in the old days, high energy got a lot of nice dogs into shelters. I forgot, you see, that ‘high energy’ has become a euphemism for cranked-up clinical anxiety. So I was smiling as I read the paperwork, imagining a nice high-energy collie mix. The only red flag I saw on the paperwork was a single mention of a quarantine period the previous week. It was a very small notation, and there was no other mention of a prior adoption or a quarantine. The dog seemed hyper but pleasant, so I went up to the desk – very busy and crowded – and asked about him. Fill out this app. Okay. I fill out the 2-page application form, and they call a worker up to take me back to one of their yards outside to meet the dog. As we walk back toward the kennels, I mention to the guy that I saw he’d been in a quarantine? The guy stops and says he has to tell me that the dog was adopted the week before, and had bitten the new owner before even leaving the building. Bitten hard enough to break skin, necessitating a rabies quarantine after the new owner handed him back. I stopped dead, looked at him disbelievingly. He said I could still meet the dog. I declined.
Now, the funny thing is that by that point I’d become so numbed by having shelter and rescue people lie to me – most often about breed, sometimes about how fun and easy it is to rehab separation anxiety and resource guarding – that I was abjectly grateful to that man for telling me the truth. I thanked him, and for several months I considered him a good guy for telling me about the bite. But after a while, I rethought it. Because there was NOTHING on the dog’s publicly available paperwork about the adoption or the bite. And the kennel guy ONLY volunteered the bite info after I’d mentioned the quarantine. Would he have mentioned it if I either didn’t notice or didn’t mention the quarantine? Would he have just walked me into a small fenced play yard to meet an anxious, hyper 60lb dog who he knew bit people, without saying a word about the dog’s bite history? Did my casual question about a small detail on the dog’s records save me from being bitten? And why the hell wasn’t there a BIG sign on that dog’s kennel?