Driver coming from Mississippi left the heat on?!
LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas––Eight months after 26 dogs reportedly died aboard an American SPCA vehicle said to have been hauling them from one or more Mississippi shelters to Wisconsin to be offered for adoption, an informed source has come forward to tell ANIMALS 24-7 what he understands to be why.
Emily Jacobs and Ben Feuerherd of the New York Post disclosed the dog deaths, on May 16, 2019, the day after they are understood to have occurred, after receiving a copy of an email sent to ASPCA staff by ASPCA president Matt Bershadker.
Bershadker pledged at the time to be “thoroughly investigating this situation.”
Anticipating a prompt ASPCA explanation, which might be helpful to the dozens of other animal rescue transport programs using similar vehicles along similar routes from the Deep South to northern states, ANIMALS 24-7 waited for twelve days before making our own first inquiries on May 28, 2019.
ANIMALS 24-7 then waited until June 6, 2019 for any sort of response before asking in a headline, Why is the ASPCA stonewalling about the deaths of 20 dogs in transport? Three-week silence howls for answers.
That did not shake any answers loose, either.
26 dogs died, not 20
On June 30, 2019, Kate Murphy of the New York Times mentioned in an article entitled “Everyone Wants a Rescue Dog. Not Everyone Can Have One” that 26 dogs, not 20, “died from excessive heat in a vehicle owned by the ASPCA while being shipped from Mississippi to Wisconsin.”
Murphy, however, cited no sources. The ASPCA offered no further information, except in a July 2019 Facebook response to a question from one Juan Garcia.
“Tragedy” does not encompass “driver error”
“This was a tragedy, and we take full responsibility for the animals in our care,” the anonymous ASPCA Facebook poster wrote. “Last month we launched a thorough investigation that was overseen by a highly experienced third-party law firm. The findings show that unintentional driver error led to excessive heat within one of our transport vehicles, causing animals to die in our care.
“We are devastated by this loss,” the poster professed. “We are working with our staff, vehicle suppliers, and vendors to make immediate changes to our protocols and ensure this tragedy will never be repeated.”
Those who learned the correct definition of “tragedy” back in high school English classes will note that an authentic tragedy occurs when a well-intentioned person tries to do the right thing, with unforeseen negative consequences. “Unintentional driver error” does not fall under this heading.
What protocols were changed?
Neither did failure to disclose just what that “driver error” was help anyone else to avoid making the same mistake.
Concealing what were the “immediate changes to our protocols” did not help anyone else, either.
The ASPCA in 2016-2017 promoted a seven-part webinar on safe rescue transport. Was whatever happened not covered? If not, why not, and what needs to be added to relevant personnel training?
“Did the ASPCA ever admit how they killed the dogs?”
Maps suggested to ANIMALS 24-7 that the ASPCA dog transport route ran through Little Rock, Arkansas. Rumors about why the 26 dogs died percolated, but without confirmation.
Finally on February 5, 2020, former Little Rock Animal Village coordinator Skip Lunders, 57, asked ANIMALS 24-7 by email, “Did the ASPCA ever admit how they killed the 20 dogs from Starkville, Mississippi?”
The inquiry suggested possible inside knowledge.
In April 2019 the ASPCA celebrated the arrival at the ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City of Apple, described as “a three-month-old female Dachshund mix,” who was said to have been the 100,000th animal moved as part of the ASPCA adoption transport program.
Which truck was it?
ANIMALS 24-7 noted in our June 6, 2019 reportage that Apple came from the Oktibbeha County Humane Society in Starkville, Mississippi––but Apple, the ASPCA said, reached New York City via the “Nancy Silverman Rescue Ride.”
The vehicle involved in the deaths of the 26 dogs was apparently the “WaterShed Animal Fund Rescue Ride,” which “is made possible by and named for the WaterShed Animal Fund,” ANIMALS 24-7 learned from combing a blizzard of previous ASPCA media releases.
The WaterShed Animal Fund 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.”
That the dead dogs might also have come from the Oktibbeha County Humane Society, albeit taking a different route north, was new information.
“Two inexperienced drivers”
ANIMALS 24-7 asked if Lunders could share anything more about the June 15, 2019 incident.
Indeed he could, and did.
“I was [formerly] the coordinator at the Little Rock Animal Village,” Lunders confirmed. “My primary job was assessing and preparing dogs for such transports.
“At the time of that accident,” however, Lunders added, “I was working as a contract driver for Forum [probably Truckers Forum Transportation LLC, of Centerville, Arkansas] who supplied drivers to the ASPCA.
“The truth,” Lunders charged, is “They had two inexperienced drivers together in that truck. You could also call them careless. They drove several hours with the heat on in the back area. It was not a simple overheating problem. They have a policy of trying to post the best numbers they could. There were times before this happened that they would split experienced drivers to work with guys like them to prevent these things from happening.”
According to the AccuWeather web site, the temperature in Starkville, Mississipi was 86 degrees Fahrenheit on May 15, 2019, suggesting no actual need for a heater to be on at all. Air conditioning would have been more appropriate.
Unsafe tires? Exhaust leak?
“I can tell you from my experience with them,” Lunders alleged of his time hauling dogs for the ASPCA, “they were willing to put two different trucks out on the road with unsafe tires, and another truck with an exhaust leak that was getting into the cab of the truck.”
ANIMALS 24-7 had mentioned, in our original coverage, carbon monoxide leakage as a possible cause of the dog deaths
“Of course if you try to complain about either unsafe trucks or inexperienced drivers, they simply let you know they don’t need your services any longer,” Lunders finished.
Why did Lunders come forward?
“You live with that the rest of your life”
An April 5, 2015 Arkansas Democrat Gazette profile offered several clues.
“The Little Rock Animal Village animal services coordinator, Skip Lunders, is a veteran of the Coast Guard’s drug enforcement division and has dealt with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder,” the Arkansas Democrat Gazette reported. “Interaction with animals became a large factor in his own healing and has proved to be peaceful for him, he said.
“He has worked at the Animal Village for two years [as of 2015] and volunteered there for two years before that.”
Explained Lunders to the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, “There are certain things most of the public doesn’t understand. In the military, you kind of do things. Later on, you question the morality of it all, and you live with that pretty much the rest of your life. Just being able to explain that, where someone won’t look at you and judge you, that’s where the value of a dog comes in to me,” Lunders said. “You can talk to them about anything, and no matter what, they still lick your cheek and jump in your lap.”
While the ASPCA continued to shroud the May 15, 2019 dog deaths in inexplicable mystery, a similar incident occurred much closer to the ASPCA headquarters.
Recounted Gabrielle Fonrouge of the New York Post on July 22, 2019, “Don — a 2-year-old pit bull who’d been rescued from Brooklyn’s Animal Care Center — was headed to Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers in Cherry Valley, New York, outside of Albany, when the Animal Care Center transporter stopped at a gas station 10 minutes from the destination and found the pup dead,” in a cage full of feces.
Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers president Liz Keller told Fonrouge that Don the pit bull “was gone and had been gone for a while because the body was really hard, very stiff,” with his mouth “wide open like an alligator.”
Reported Fonrouge, “Don left Brooklyn around 9 a.m. for the four-hour ride in the midst of the worst heat wave the city has seen since 2011, with heat indexes as high as 110 degrees.”
“Another dog who was traveling with Don, named Bambino, was also in bad shape when the transporter arrived and was showing signs of dehydration,” Fonrouge mentioned, but Bambino recovered.
If the ASPCA had been forthcoming with what it had presumably learned by then via the alleged “thorough investigation that was overseen by a highly experienced third-party law firm,” Don the pit bull might still be alive, and Bambino would not have suffered.
“No one checked on the dogs”
Blogged No Kill Advocacy Center founder Nathan Winograd on May 30, 2019, “The ASPCA does not know ‘where along the trip the dogs died.’ 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, to ensure, among other details, that they would not be cooked alive by “unintentional driver error.”
Checklists for safe adoption transport
Meanwhile, there have been checklists available for safe adoption transport for more than 50 years, beginning with a list compiled by longtime North Shore Animal League America chief executive Elisabeth Lewyt for her then-volunteer drivers soon after she pioneered adoption transport in 1969.
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.”
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.
The North Shore and “Rescue Waggin’” protocols, from the beginning, both emphasized frequently checking the well-being of the dogs.