Three-week silence howls for answers
NEW YORK CITY––Twenty dogs died on May 15, 2019 aboard an American SPCA vehicle that was hauling them from one or more Mississippi shelters to Wisconsin to be offered for adoption.
That could be called just a really bad accident, except that three weeks after Emily Jacobs and Ben Feuerherd of the New York Post disclosed the dog deaths, on May 16, 2019, the ASPCA continues to stonewall about what killed the dogs, where, when, on what make and model of vehicle, and why whatever happened was not discovered by the transport team before the dogs died.
Was law enforcement notified?
The ASPCA is stonewalling, in short, about all of the information that would normally be made available by law enforcement to both media and the public within hours of a similar incident involving either a small nonprofit rescue or a commercial transporter.
Unclear in the case of the dogs hauled by the ASPCA is whether law enforcement was ever even notified, and if so, in which jurisdiction within what state.
Information on how and why the 20 dogs died might be used, if available, by other animal haulers to avoid deaths in transit––for example, if the deaths occurred in part due to delays caused by flooding afflicting much of the Midwest since mid-March 2019.
Was flooding involved? Or carbon monoxide?
Flooding might have led to animals becoming overheated and/or dehydrated because scheduled stops could not be made.
Livestock haulers throughout the spring have helped each other find out about road and bridge closures, off ramps that are unexpectedly underwater, and inaccessible rest areas. Such cooperation among livestock truckers has been routine since the advent of CB radio more than 60 years ago.
Promptly sharing information about a vehicular defect can also save lives, for instance if an air conditioner failed, an electrical system caught fire, or an exhaust pipe leaked fumes into a carrying compartment. The latter, ironically, could have resulted in animals who were supposedly being rescued from gassing with carbon monoxide at a pound being gassed instead by the rescuers.
Fully informed, anyone transporting animals in a similar vehicle can easily stop at the nearest dealer service center to have the equipment in question checked, and repaired if necessary.
Disease? Dog violence?
Transporters at times also experience animal deaths aboard vehicles due to unexpected disease outbreaks that rapidly spread among stressed and crowded animals, including dogs and cats. Sharing this information helps to contain outbreaks before they spread from community to community, state to state, and even across international borders.
In one recent instance, a three-way pit bull fight aboard a private rescue vehicle led to two of the pit bulls being shot by a third-party intervenor, when police response was delayed. Local media coverage of the incident might at least have encouraged other rescue transporters to keep a fire extinguisher within quick reach of the driver and/or a front seat passenger.
ASPCA produced webinar on safe transport
The ASPCA in 2016-2017 promoted a seven-part webinar on safe rescue transport. Whether the ASPCA webinar addressed the causes of the dog deaths on the ASPCA vehicle cannot be known, because the ASPCA has withheld the essential details.
Thus, if anything useful might be learned from the May 15, 2019 dog deaths, from whatever cause, it presently remains a mystery.
Reported Jacobs and Feuerherd, “The ASPCA is investigating its safety protocols after 20 dogs died while the nonprofit was transporting them from a site in Mississippi to one in Wisconsin, a spokesperson said. It’s not clear where along the trip the dogs died, the ASPCA said. The nonprofit is investigating what led to their deaths, but added it was not the result of a car crash.”
The ASPCA pledged to be “thoroughly investigating this situation to fully understand all the facts and make any necessary changes to our existing safety protocols and practices to help ensure that we prevent any similar incident in the future.”
Info to be released on “need-to-know” basis
Wrote Jacobs and Feuerherd, “The deaths were announced to staff by ASPCA president and CEO Matt Bershadker in an email.”
Said Bershadker, “We are communicating with our source and destination transport partners, as well as other partners and external groups as needed.”
In other words, Bershadker anticipated releasing information on a “need-to-know” basis, determining for himself who might need to know.
This was not received well on social media.
What if the dogs had been hauled by a breeder?
“Had it not been the ASPCA whose animals died in transport,” observed the pro-animal use industry organization HumaneWatch on May 21, 2019, “but rather a farmer or dog breeder, animal activists would be screaming bloody murder. Will PETA be calling for a roadside memorial to honor these victims of the ASPCA? We doubt it.
“We’ll be curious if the ASPCA releases any public details about the incident,” HumaneWatch continued. “That will go a long way to determining if the organization is transparent and regretful, or prefers the incident get swept under the carpet.”
“No one checked on the dogs” during trip
Blogged No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd on May 30, 2019, “The ASPCA took in roughly $263 million in 2017. That same year, ASPCA CEO Matt Bershadker had take-home compensation totaling $852,231 (approximately twice the compensation paid to then-Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle.)
“Yet according to transporters,” Winograd continued, “the ASPCA did not spend $15,000 to protect dogs by equipping each transport van with a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system.”
Winograd cited one transporter by name, Tom Vaccarella, owner/operator of Safe K9 Transports, of Pipe Creek, Texas, near San Antonio.
“The ASPCA does not know ‘where along the trip the dogs died,’ Winograd pointed out. “That means no one checked on the dogs on the 1,000-mile trip between the time they left Mississippi and arrived, dead, in Wisconsin, roughly 14 hours later, assuming no delays and no ‘pit stops.’”
The route could have been as short as 700 miles, if the transporters took the most direct possible route and made no detours to leave animals at shelters other than the destination shelter. Either way, though, the dogs do not appear to have been closely monitored.
Waiting for answers got us nowhere
Believing that the ASPCA would clarify the location and cause(s) of the 20 dog deaths, following investigation, ANIMALS 24-7 waited until May 28, 2019 before asking overdue questions directly of Bershadker and other ASPCA spokespersons, via email.
ANIMALS 24-7 also took into consideration that the ASPCA might have been preoccupied during the preceding week by having helped local authorities in Morgan and Owen counties, Indiana, to transport and accommodate 550 alleged gamefowl and nine pit bulls from facilities that an ASPCA media release said were “consistent with dog fighting” and “commonly associated with cockfighting.”
Indiana Gaming Commission Superintendent for Law Enforcement Rob Townsend told WXIN-Fox 59 of Indianapolis that the ASPCA “provided two semi-tractor trailers to haul the animals to an undisclosed location for safekeeping and veterinary examination.”
Bershadker continues six-year silence
When ANIMALS 24-7 finally did send our inquiry to the ASPCA about the 20 dogs who died in transport, we pointed out that as well as having investigated many similar cases, both members of our editorial team have personally transported animals for thousands of miles, in summer heat, without ever losing an animal en route.
From our own experiences, we explained, we do understand that much can go wrong.
“Therefore,” we wrote, “we have patiently awaited the ASPCA findings, while receiving inquiries from as far away as Japan about just what happened, and not joining or contributing to the ongoing frenzy of speculation about the incident on social media.”
But Bershadker, the ASPCA president since 2013, and his communication staff, only continued their six-year record of never even once responding to an ANIMALS 24-7 inquiry.
Previous ASPCA chief executives Ed Sayres (2003-2013), Larry Hawk (1999-2003), and John Kullberg (1977-1991), usually responded helpfully to questions the same day. Roger Caras (1991-1998) typically delegated someone else to relay the requested information.
Why did pit bull escape from mobile clinic?
ANIMALS 24-7 also requested clarification from the ASPCA pertaining to an incident which was conflated on social media to some extent with the deaths of the 20 dogs, apparently because it also involved an ASPCA truck, albeit a different type of truck, six weeks earlier.
In that incident a pit bull named Nyla, belonging to a young woman named Angel Hueca, was according to Hueca left at an ASPCA mobile clinic for spaying on March 28, 2019, but somehow escaped the next day, was hit by two cars, suffered a broken spine, and was euthanized.
Asked ANIMALS 24-7, “How exactly did that incident occur? Why was Nyla not under sedation and/or restraint?”
We received no explanation from the ASPCA. According to Hueca’s Facebook postings, she didn’t get much of an explanation either.
“WaterShed Animal Fund Rescue Ride”
ANIMALS 24-7 did, however, learn from combing a blizzard of previous ASPCA media releases that the vehicle involved in the deaths of the 20 dogs was apparently the “WaterShed Animal Fund Rescue Ride,” which “is made possible by and named for the WaterShed Animal Fund.”
This is a dedicated fund within the $17.8 million Arnall Family Foundation, of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The WaterShed Animal Fund in 2016 granted $750,000 to the ASPCA to finance the “WaterShed Animal Fund Rescue Ride,” a bit less than Bershadker’s pay for 2017.
On April 4, 2019 the ASPCA celebrated having transported 100,000 animals from “overcrowded shelters in under-resourced areas of the country, most often in the South, to relocate their animals to other shelters, most often in the North, where those animals have greater chances of being adopted.”
“Since the program launched in 2014,” the ASPCA media release said, “the ASPCA has made 4,461 trips, 3,644 by transport vehicle, 814 by plane, working with 45 source shelters, 86 destination shelters and five waystations to move 76,550 dogs, 22,855 cats and 595 other types of animal. In 2018 alone, the ASPCA moved 40,314 animals across the country to help them find new homes.”
The animals came from 16 states, and were moved to shelters in 32 states.
The 100,000th animal the ASPCA transported was said to have been “Apple, a three-month-old female Dachshund mix,” who arrived at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City via the “Nancy Silverman Rescue Ride.”
Apple the Dachshund mix came from the Oktibbeha County Humane Society in Starkville, Mississippi, probably not far from the point of departure for the 20 dead dogs.
North Shore Animal League America did it all, successfully, much sooner
The ASPCA accomplishment, impressive though it may sound in isolation, came just about exactly 50 years after longtime North Shore Animal League America chief executive Elisabeth Lewyt, who died in 2012, pioneered adoption transport.
By 1992, when the North Shore Animal League America funded similar programs by 31 other shelters around the U.S., North Shore had long since eclipsed the ASPCA record of 100,000 animals transported from “overcrowded shelters in under-resourced areas of the country, most often in the South.”
The North Shore program at peak transported more than 20,000 animals per year from animal control shelters in the greater New York City “Tri-State” region, plus as many as 20,000 more from the South, chiefly Tennessee, Virginia, and the Carolinas.
PetSmart Charities safely moved 75,000 animals
PetSmart Charities, after building adoption boutiques in PetSmart stores nationwide that were originally modeled after the North Shore facilities in Port Washington, New York, in 2004 introduced the nationwide “Rescue Waggin’” adoption transport program.
The “Rescue Waggin’,” developed through extensive consultation with then-North Shore Animal League America operations director Perry Fina (1949-2008), transported about 75,000 animals before PetSmart Charities shut it down in August 2016.
PetSmart Charities then granted $7.6 million to “more than 85 animal welfare organizations to support animal transport efforts,” the organization announced.