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Life and Death Decisions

When questions are raised over the euthanisation of a stray dog, shelter must explain its verdict.

The last time Nancy Schoenig saw a lost dog wandering through her Loft Ridge neighborhood off Franconia Road, she convinced her neighbor not to call animal control and she went online. She began posting the dog’s description on every lost-dog website she could find.

Before long, she had a response. “Someone showed up and called his name and the dog came running out of the woods and they were happily reunited,” Schoenig recalled. “I know his name was Lightning.”

The second time Nancy Schoenig saw a lost dog wandering through her neighborhood, there was no happy reunion.

On Monday, June 12, Schoenig and several of her neighbors saw a dog in the street, looking lost. He had no collar and no tags. They left food and water for him, and he came to the dishes to eat and drink, but when they tried to approach nearer than twenty feet, he fled.

In the midst of the pursuit, Schoenig had to run inside her home to attend to an overflowing dishwasher.

When she had a chance to look out the window again, she said, “To my horror there was animal control with a rope around his neck.” She watched the dog sit down and said he seemed to be obediently walking to the animal control officer’s truck.

Schoenig’s neighbor Wendy Norman witnessed the entire capture. She said the dog was so skittish that the animal control officer, Kim England, needed to use her “snappy-snare” (a leash on a rope) to catch him, but once the loop was around the dog’s neck, the dog seemed to calm. Norman said the dog jumped into the back of the truck without incident.

“After we caught him and had the rope around him he was more subdued,” Norman said. “It was a trust factor. He learned to trust us.”

ENGLAND BROUGHT the dog to the Fairfax Animal Shelter. Schoenig immediately began to lay the groundwork for the dog’s release. “I just remember thinking, ‘This dog obviously belongs to somebody,” she explained.

She posted signs around the neighborhood and began registering the dog on websites. She contacted a friend in a dog rescue group and two friends who all said they’d be willing to take on the dog, which she identified as a boxer.

She called the shelter as soon as it opened the next morning. “I want to help the dog,” she told them. “I’m going to find the owner or find him a home.”

She said she was told the dog was “out back.” She interpreted this to mean solitary confinement.

Concerned, she continued calling every day. She’d been told that the shelter’s policy was to keep dogs one week. If they were not adopted, they would be euthanised. When the shelter told her they identified the dog as a pit bull mix, not a boxer, that was “too frightened to adopt,” her alarm levels rose higher. She asked to speak to the director of the shelter, Dr. Karen Diveney.

“She got on the phone and just gave me this canned response,” said Schoenig. “Finally I said, ‘Have you actually looked at this dog?’ and she said, “No, I haven’t.’”

“I really feared for this dog’s life,” Schoenig said. She called the office of her Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman. Kauffman’s office contacted the police in charge of the shelter and Schoenig thought their intervention had won the dog a reprieve.

But on Tuesday, July 20, Schoenig learned the dog had been euthanised.

DEVASTATED by the decision, Schoenig is convinced someone in the shelter made a mistake, and instead of admitting this, the staff closed ranks and pushed through with the decision to kill the dog.

Schoenig said that in a subsequent conversation with England (who did not return a phone call for this article), England said she had not witnessed behavior that warranted a death sentence.

“I think they said he looked like a pit bull so we’re going to treat him like a pit bull,” said Schoenig, “from the very beginning it was just handled wrong.”

Schoenig wrote a letter to the “Gazette,” spoke with the Deputy Police Chief in charge of the shelter and followed up with Kauffman’s office. “The idea now,” she explained, “is at least put some pressure on them so they don’t do this again or they make some changes.”

The shelter posted a picture of the dog online. Schoenig believes the picture - in which the dog stands on the concrete floor of a kennel with his head thrust towards the camera, the wrinkles on its face easily anthropomorphized into a look of concerned confusion - is profound evidence of the dog’s character. “You just look at that face and you’re like, ‘Oh my God,’” she said.

“I think you have to ask, ‘What happens to an animal that gets put in [that back room]?’” Schoenig said, “Either putting them in there changes an animal or they really did do something terrible.”

THE SHELTER’S story of the dog’s demise is different from Schoenig’s in several ways. However, although the descriptions and interpretations of the dog’s behavior conflict, the most profound difference seems to be one of perspective.

Shelter operators see Schoenig as a well-intentioned dog lover who cannot accept the reasoning behind killing a dog she hoped to save.

“Everybody from the captain that oversees the animal shelter to the deputy chief has spent quite a bit of time trying to help Mrs. Schoenig understand what happened to this dog, and it doesn’t seem to matter to her,” said Mary Anne Jennings, Fairfax Police Director of Public Information.

She said England reported that although the dog had moments of calm after it was snared, it also had moments when it tugged violently against its tether. Regardless, shelter director Karen Diveney said the decision on the dog’s fate was made in the shelter and was not based on England’s report.

The Fairfax Animal Shelter has two kennel areas, a public one in front filled with dogs waiting for adoption, and a “quarantine” area in the back. The dog from Loft Ridge was placed in the back, standard policy for a dog suspected of any aggression, so that it could not bite children in the public room who might ignore the warnings and put their hands through the chain link.

According to Jennings and Diveney, there are 22 quarantine kennels, 11 on each side, separated from one another by chain link fence. They are about four feet wide by six feet long.

Stray dogs with no identification are kept by the Fairfax shelter for seven days, although the state requires only five. Dogs with identification are held for ten. On the seventh or eleventh day, the dog becomes available for disposition. It will be adopted, sent to a rescue group or euthanised. Dogs that demonstrate aggressive tendencies but have done nothing to warrant seizure are allowed to leave only with their owner.

The quarantine kennels are not exclusively for dogs with aggressive tendencies. Diveney said any dog that is not up for adoption would be placed in the quarantine area, including several dogs owned by residents of the Huntington area who were evacuated from their homes because of flooding.

Although the shelter exercises dogs when it can, unclaimed strays are not allowed to walk outside. This is because they are not the property of the shelter but of the owners who might return for them, Diveney said. “There’s a risk something will happen to them and they don’t belong to us.” She said they do try to keep the dogs entertained with chew toys and blankets.

Diveney acknowledged that being locked in a strange kennel for days may effect a dog’s behavior. “Some dogs change their behavior when they are in kennels and that’s always something you have to think about,” she said. “In an ideal world maybe there’s another set-up.”

THE DOG from Loft Ridge was initially evaluated by the kennel’s two caretaker supervisors. When Diveney herself first saw the dog, she said she was struck by its “frozen stare, the kind you’re not going to take a risk on.” Shelter staff tested the dog by putting a false hand into its cage. “The dog was very still, very quite,” Diveney said. “The hand went in … [the dog] just went wham when it got closer to the face.”

She said that although most dogs they refuse to put up for adoption are more “actively aggressing -” snapping, barking and lunging - the fear-aggression tendencies displayed by this dog were dramatic enough to make the staff unanimously decide it was unadoptable.

The kennel’s policy is simple. “If the dog is considered a liability for public safety we do not send it out,” Diveney explained. “Part of our mission in animal services is to protect public safety. We’re not going to send out a dog that we think is going to hurt someone.”

Because of the attention from Schoenig though, Diveney decided to call in a rescue group. She said the shelter has connections with about 40 animal rescue groups. They only call a group if a dog is adoptable or borderline. Diveney said she called in Diane Spessard with Boxer Rescue and Adoption Inc. even though she believed the dog was not a boxer and was far beyond the borderline of adoptability.

Spessard unequivocally concurred with this opinion.

BOXER RESCUE and Adoption Inc. is non-profit organization that takes in boxers. Before finding them a home, Spessard and her husband ensure their dogs are fully vaccinated, have had all their medical issues treated, have been temperament tested, trained and spayed or neutered. Spessard said she does not try to save every dog. She will only take dogs that she believes could become safe pets for someone less experienced than herself. This excludes dogs that bite dogs and dogs that bite people. She also refuses dogs with medical problems that will severely affect their quality of life.

Spessard estimates she takes in about 80 dogs a year. Most are adopted. The $250 fee she charges for adoptions, plus donations the 501C3 organization receives, pays the rescue group’s expenses. Spessard takes dogs from shelters, but many also come from owners who are no longer able or willing to keep them.

Spessard said fear alone is not a reason to disqualify a dog. She described spending months crawling each day into a cage to socialize with a dog that was so fearful it would cower from everyone. But the dog never bit.

She agreed with Diveney that the dog from Loft Ridge was not a boxer, and was part pit bull. She said being a pit bull did not disqualify a dog either. She is training a pit-boxer mix right now.

She described the dog’s first response to her as “kind of a look of intensity. You couldn’t tell if it was a fear biter or not … This dog was very quiet, but he looked at me and he wouldn’t break a stare. That was the first thing that made me a little uneasy, because you couldn’t read his face.” When she reached a false hand into his cage to brush his head, he attacked it.

Spessard said that being in a kennel could affect a dog, but it would not make a safe dog become an aggressive one. “You could take the dogs I adopt out, stick them in that run, and they’re not going to bite,” she said. “If it’s fearful but not a fear-biter its going to scrunch back at the back of the run”

Spessard expressed no hesitation about her verdict. “There’s so many dogs that get euthanised every day of the week,” she said. “Why choose a dog that’s iffy? … The bottom line is you’ve got to safeguard yourself and safeguard the people you’re adopting to if you’re going to do a good job.”

FOR DIVENEY also, the safety of the public outweighs the fate of the dog. “There’s an emotional side of this,” she said, “and then the … the objective or practical side … I can feel bad for a dog like that, and it’s sad when they are so fearful and you can’t do anything to help them, but that really can’t get in the way of doing what you know is the right and responsible thing.”

Diveney said she believes the response of Schoenig and her neighbors to the death of the dog is a result of a difference in perspective. “What they saw was a dog, lost hungry, wandering around without an owner,” Diveney said.

But the shelter saw a dog that displayed fear-aggression. “Someone had a difference of opinion in terms of what this dog was really like. And that often happens with animals. People have different biases. Our job is to try to put biases aside and focus on what you actually see.”

“Can we do better?” said Diveney. “We can always do better. Can we do better by sending out an aggressive dog? Absolutely not … Ultimately the responsibility for the decision came down to the shelter and we made what we thought was the best decision.”

ALTHOUGH the dog has been dead over one month, there is at least one more chapter left in the story. Supervisor Kauffman was “very concerned about [the dog’s euthanisation] and about some issues that it raises,” said his staff-member Linda Waller. He requested a report on the matter from Deputy County Executive Rob Stalzer. Waller did not give details of what was requested in the report, but she said it would address “murky areas” Kauffman had observed and potential “communication gaps” involving the shelter. She said the report would try to answer whether whatever happened with the stray dog from Loft Ridge might reflect larger issues within the shelter, but she said she did not want the inquiry to be “adversarial.”

“We want to be sure what happens on the ground has the best possible outcome for every animal,” Waller explained. The report is due at the end of the month.