Two seven-figure settlements in five days might make “socially responsible sheltering the new norm––if the idea isn’t corrupted
LOS ANGELES, California; FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida––Representatives of pit bull attack victims twice in five days in early September 2019 announced apparent record-setting damage awards from animal care and control agencies for alleged negligence in allowing pit bulls of previous attack history to remain at large.
The Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control is to pay $1.1 million to survivors of Pamela Devitt, 63, killed by four pit bulls on May 9, 2013.
The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, is to pay a sum believed to be substantially higher to Zoey Green, age five when severely mauled by a pit bull on March 25, 2017.
May tip the balance
The seven-figure awards may help to tip the prevailing paradigm for the animal care and control field from what might be termed “no kill at any cost” to “socially responsible sheltering.”
First, though, the term “socially responsible sheltering” must escape hijacking and misuse as a catch-all cover for institutional failures by non-“no kill” agencies.
Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region president Jan McHugh-Smith and Denver Dumb Friends League president Apryl Steele, among others, introduced “socially responsible sheltering” as an animal care and control agency operating philosophy earlier in 2019.
But what does “socially conscious animal sheltering” really mean?
Both McHugh-Smith and Steele head agencies which more than 25 years ago were among the first in the U.S. to move away from population control killing of homeless dogs and cats. Their communities have ever since maintained rates of animal control killing, all local shelters combined, that are among the lowest in the nation.
But both McHugh-Smith and Steele, and most other shelter directors who quickly endorsed “socially responsible sheltering,” as McHugh-Smith and Steele defined it, had become alarmed by shelters deteriorating into animal hoarding in the name of “no kill,” refusing to take in animals whom they might have to euthanize, and rehoming dogs of known dangerous history and/or disposition––most of them pit bulls.
Best Friends Animal Society
Claiming that the Best Friends Animal Society is the “national leader of the no-kill movement,” Best Friends chief executive Julie Castle on April 16, 2019 responded to what she termed an “Anti no-kill statement issued by the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association” in support of McHugh-Smith and Steele.
Partially endorsing “socially responsible animal sheltering” as the CVMA summarized it in bullet points, while denouncing the multiple CVMA criticisms of “no kill,” Castle entirely side-stepped the pit bull issue.
But one of the focal points of “socially conscious animal sheltering” is to avoid having “no kill” shelter policies contribute to incidents like the pit bull attacks that killed Best Friends Network volunteer Rebecca Carey, 23, in 2012, and severely mauled Best Friends Animal Society employee Jacqueline Bedsaul Johnson, then 61, in 2017––and cost Pamela Devitt her life, Zoey Green a lifelong disfigurement.
Why Pamela Devitt died
Devitt was merely walking for exercise in the unincorporated Littlerock district, near her home in Palmdale, California, when killed by four pit bulls who had been left at large by the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control, despite repeated complaints from neighbors about dangerous behavior.
According to the Los Angeles area online legal newspaper Metropolitan News-Enterprise, “A letter from ‘Concerned employees’ who worked in the department’s animal shelter in Lancaster had written to higher-ups in the department management and to the [Los Angeles County] Board of Supervisors, prior to the attack on Devitt, telling of the situation in Littlerock.
“They alleged that the department was failing to ‘enforce proper processes and procedures that would have resulted in the dogs being impounded, and to properly respond to complaints from the public over several months seeking protection from dogs running at large from the Jackson property and attacking people and livestock.’”
The owner of the pit bulls who killed Devitt, Alex Donald Jackson, was in 2014 convicted of second degree murder for allowing them to run at large, and is now serving 15 years to life in state prison.
Los Angeles County deputy district attorney Ryan Williams told the court in a sentencing memorandum that Jackson kept the pit bulls and a shotgun to guard his illegal drug stash.
Williams also acknowledged that the pit bulls had attacked nine other people in 18 months, as well as several horses.
The Devitt family––her husband and two adult children––charged in their lawsuit that the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control had received complaints about Jackson’s pit bulls attacking people, pets, and livestock since 2005, including twice in the four months before Devitt’s death, but had repeatedly failed to impound the pit bulls.
Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care & Control director Marcia Mayeda meanwhile told the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors immediately after Devitt was killed that animal control officers had found no dogs on Jackson’s property when responding to the earlier complaints.
“Shall capture and take into custody”
A whistleblower, however, leaked documents indicating that the pit bulls had been seen by animal control staff on multiple occasions, and that Mayeda had deliberately misrepresented the case history, including allegedly changing the dates on electronic log entries.
Sued in 2015 for purportedly neglecting a mandatory duty to impound stray and unlicensed dogs, Mayeda and Los Angeles County contended that they could not be held liable under California state law.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mel Recana agreed. Appellate Justice Audrey Collins, however, in June 2017 overturned Recana’s ruling. Collins held that Los Angeles County Code language stating that the Department of Animal Care & Control “shall capture and take into custody” unlicensed or stray dogs or dogs “running at large” made this duty mandatory, and that failure to perform that duty made the county liable.
“May be a failure of supervision”
Another turning point in the case, albeit not known to have been directly linked to the Devitt death, was an October 25, 2018 exposé by David Goldstein of CBS–LA showing four Los Angeles County animal control officers––Fidel Perez, Bryant Morales, Antonio Herrera, and Steve Edwards––logging in for duty, but then allegedly spending most of several days on personal business, including conducting a yard sale, working out at gymnasiums, and sleeping in a park.
Perez, Morales, and Edwards claimed to respond to as many as 82, 97, and 66 calls, respectively, during the time Bernstein indicated that they were not actually working.
Acknowledging that “It may be a failure of supervision,” Mayeda said she had referred the Goldstein disclosures to the Los Angeles County auditor.
Faced with the possibility that the animal control activity logs involved in the Devitt case might have been as questionable as the claimed activity of Perez, Morales, Herrera, and Edwards, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on September 10, 2019 approved the $1.1 million settlement with the Devitt family.
Topped 2013 Pierce County award
This easily topped the largest previous disclosed award of $924,000 paid in 2013 by Pierce County, Washington to pit bull attack victim Sue Gorman, then 65, of Gig Harbor.
In that case, a Pierce County jury found the county animal control department to be 42% responsible for a total award to Gorman of $2.2 million for injuries and other damages suffered when two pit bulls burst into her home through an open sliding glass door late on August 21, 2007.
The pit bulls mauled Gorman, injured her service dog, and killed a visiting Jack Russell terrier.
Pierce County animal control was found negligent for having failed to respond effectively to as many as 14 previous complaints about the pit bulls.
Undisclosed Zoey Green award may be new record
The Devitt and Gorman awards, however, might both have been exceeded by the September 5, 2019 settlement of the Zoey Green case against the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and animal control officer Kevin Schoeneman, brought by Green’s mother, Paige Woody, on Green’s behalf.
Paige Woody, according to a detailed account of the attack by Northwest Florida Daily News reporter Wendy Victoria, published on March 29, 2017, “had agreed to pet sit [a pit bull named] Mandingo and another dog at their home while their owner,” Lodie Hennessy, then 55, “worked in the south part of Okaloosa County. Paige already had been there twice.”
“Hold on, baby, hold on!”
On the day of the attack, Victoria recounted, “the owner asked her to come over so she could show Paige how to apply a horsefly spray to the dogs. Paige went into the backyard with the dogs and their owner and left Zoey in the house. She says the owner told her the dogs were great with children, but Paige didn’t want to take a chance and didn’t want to leave Zoey in the car. She and the owner were talking near the patio door when Zoey started tapping on the glass, clearly getting impatient.”
Said Paige Woody, “I kept telling her, ‘Hold on, baby, hold on, baby,’” Paige said. “Then I cracked the door so she could hear me better.”
Resumed Victoria, “That’s when Mandingo lunged through the partially open door, grabbed the little girl by the face and dragged her into the yard.”
Multiple complex surgeries––and more ahead
Summarized Northwest Florida Daily News Tony Adame, “Zoey lost an eyelid, suffered a broken jaw, and had to essentially have her face put back together with hundreds of stitches and staples. Woody was also injured while trying to rescue her daughter and received 28 staples and stitches for her injuries.”
Already having endured multiple complex surgeries at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Zoey Green will require many further operations as she grows.
“Zoey had insurance at the time of the attack, but Paige did not,” reported Annie Blanks of the Northwest Florida Daily News in a January 2018 follow-up.
Meanwhile, bills resulting from the attack were soon in the six figures, climbing toward seven.
How the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society became liable
As Hennessy was effectively indigent, there appeared to be no one to sue to recover the costs, until personal injury attorneys David Swanick III and Cherish N. Patitz learned of the prior history of the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society involving Mandingo.
The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society is a $2.1-million-a-year organization with assets of $1.1 million, according to IRS Form 990, and as of 2017 was paid $479,000 per year to perform animal control services for Okaloosa County, including protecting the public from dangerous dogs.
Mandingo in July 2015 had injured several people and a cockapoo in the lobby of the Bluewater Veterinary Clinic in Niceville, Florida. But the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society, according to the lawsuit on behalf of Zoey Green, failed to take appropriate action under the law to protect the public from Mandingo.
30-year history of neglecting public safety
The Panhandle Animal Welfare Society in fact already had a 30-year history of allegedly neglecting public safety in previous dangerous dog cases, detailed by ANIMALS 24-7 in Pit bull victims sue the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society.
Shalimar, Florida resident Nancy Menkener warned in a 1986 open letter of complaint about Panhandle Animal Welfare Society failures to respond effectively to pit bull killings of cats” that “The next victim might be a small child.”
Two years later, on September 23, 1988, the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society sent a wolf hybrid named Chief to his fourth home in four months, after promoting him as “Pet of the Week.”
Within an hour, Chief escaped, chasing neighbor Heather Locke into her home.
Another neighbor, Sharon Kay Carpenter, found Chief running at large, brought him into her yard, and called the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society. Chief killed her son Nathan Carpenter, age 4, while she was on the telephone.
Panhandle Animal Welfare Society repeats mistakes
Nathan Carpenter was the first person known to have been killed by any dog rehomed by a U.S. animal shelter. Only one more person was killed by a rehomed dog during the next 15 years, but at least 40 people have been killed by dogs rehomed from shelters and rescues since then.
For about 10 years, meanwhile, the known upper-end liability payment in a lawsuit against a humane society resulting from a dog attack was the $425,000 paid by the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society in 1991 to the Carpenter family––and that was the settlement in only one of at least four lawsuits filed against the organization because of dog attacks before the Zoey Green case. None of the other outcomes were disclosed.
Covers surgeries & college
Said Paige Woody of the outcome of her lawsuit on behalf of Zoey Green, “I can’t talk about the amount we settled for, but not only did the insurance company [for the Panhandle Animal Welfare Society] have to pay, but PAWS had to pay as well. It’s enough to maintain taking Zoey to Galveston for surgeries until she’s done growing. When she hits milestone ages, she’ll be able to go to college and have lump sums of money if she needs plastic surgery in the future.”
Panhandle Animal Welfare Society director Dee Thompson told Adame, “I can only reply that both lawsuits [against her agency and against animal control officer Schoeneman] have been resolved.”
So what is “socially responsible” in Los Angeles?
Meanwhile back in Los Angeles, the Devitt case settlement was upstaged as it approached settlement by Department of Animal Care & Control director Mayeda’s public embrace of “socially responsible animal sheltering,” the big question being whether what she means by it is at all what McHugh-Smith, Steele, and other early proponents mean.
Mayeda, in making her case for heading a “socially responsible animal sheltering” agency, pointed toward a departmental “live release rate” for dogs of 88%, and for cats of 53%, and toward the Los Angeles County shelters having transferred 7,763 animals in 2018 to other shelters to be offered for adoption.
The “no kill” threshold promoted by the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, and the No Kill Advocacy Center, among others, is a “live release rate” of at least 90%.
Why “live release rate” means nothing
ANIMALS 24-7, however, regards achieving a 90% “live release rate” as inherently misleading and dangerous, since the quickest, easiest way for an agency to do that is to turn away owner-surrendered animals, refuse to pick up strays whose health or behavior might require euthanasia, and rehome dangerous dogs.
Repeated failure to impound the four pit bulls who killed Devitt was exactly the opposite of “socially conscious animal sheltering.”
Not knowing what animal control officers who are paid as much as $91,000 a year are doing all day is not a demonstration of “socially conscious animal sheltering” either.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on August 6, 2019 directed Mayeda to report within 90 what “socially conscious animal sheltering” means for the county Department of Animal Care & Control, including how it is being implemented.
PETA endorsement may not help
Diana Mendoza, manager of the year-old People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals “Let’s Fix Los Angeles” spay/neuter program, endorsed “socially responsible animal sheltering as “a smart, compassionate, level-headed model that has the power to bring the community together. Instead of reducing animals to statistics the way the ‘no-kill’ movement does,” Mendoza said, “socially conscious sheltering puts the animal’s interest firmly in focus, along with what is best for the community.”
But the PETA endorsement is inherently suspect to practitioners of neuter/return feral cat control, a technique that PETA has always opposed.
Former Los Angeles Animal Services commissioner, American Humane Association regional director, and Western University associate professor of biomedical ethics and public policy Gini Barrett argued in a public statement that “socially responsible animal sheltering” would “maintain the life-saving goals of the ‘no-kill’ movement, while solving some of the tragic side effects that have harmed and often killed animals and even humans.”
That, however, will only be true if the definition of “socially responsible animal sheltering” follows the examples set by the agencies that introduced the phrase.
Davis County, Utah
The Davis County, Utah board of commissioners on September 3, 2019 passed a resolution favoring the adoption of a “socially conscious” philosophy by Davis County Animal Care & Control.
Wrote Ogden Standard Examiner investigative reporter Mark Shenefelt, “It’s apparently a first in Utah,” where the Best Friends Animal Society in 1997 first rolled out the “No More Homeless Pets” program to take communities to “no-kill,” taking it national in 2000.
“No More Homeless Pets” initially focused on improving access to low-cost and free spay/neuter surgery, but transitioned to promoting adoptions, and since 2007 has especially emphasized promoting adoptions of pit bulls, who make up more than a third of the dogs entering animal shelters and about two-thirds of the dogs euthanized in shelters, mostly for behavioral reasons.
Davis County Animal Care & Control director Rhett Nicks told Shenefelt that the agency already claims “live release” rates of 96% for dogs and 89% for cats.
The Best Friends Animal Society praised Davis County for reaching “no kill” status, as Best Friends defines it, in 2015.
Cracking down on hoarding in Colorado
While debate over “socially responsible animal sheltering” continued at the theoretical level elsewhere, the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region’s Animal Law Enforcement in early September 2019 impounded at least 48 allegedly neglected cats from the five-year-old “no kill” Steel City Alley Cats Coalition shelter, and was reportedly investigating filing criminal charges.
“It’s the second time this year that law enforcement has intervened against a no-kill shelter in Pueblo,” noted Jovana Simic and Sam Kraemer of KOAA News. “PAWS For Life, which won the contract to operate the city/county shelter in Pueblo, lost its license after ‘deplorable’ conditions were found inside the shelter.”
The Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, which previously managed the Pueblo Animal Services shelter, returned to managing it on April 9, 2019.
Fremont County update
Doug Rae, executive director of the also-“no kill” Humane Society of Fremont County, led an effort to try to help PAWS For Life keep the Pueblo animal control contract.
Within weeks, however, Rae was in trouble himself after a Colorado Department of Agriculture inspection reportedly found multiple violations of state laws and regulations at the Humane Society of Fremont County shelter, mostly associated with alleged overcrowding.
Rae remained at the Humane Society of Fremont County after correcting the violations and receiving an early June 2019 vote of confidence from the board of directors.