Eli was a young, 18 month old grey and white Staffordshire Terrier cross waiting for his forever home at Sonoma County Animal Care and Control (SCACC). This attractive dog, seen here, arrived at the shelter as a fearful stray on July 17, 2012 but soon blossomed into a volunteer favorite. Eli was killed on November 10th, 2012 after experiencing a veterinary emergency he was not treated for, possibly failing a second temperament test performed while he was experiencing pain, and what some advocates consider a lack of due diligence in finding foster accommodations.
Eli and the tennis ball
Eli was loved by volunteers who spent time with him, although did make some questionable decisions regarding what he ate – as many dogs do. His records indicate that he ate a zipper (sometime before November, 2012), and a volunteer witnessed Eli eating an entire tennis ball on November 2nd, 2012. Any vet, and most dog guardians, know that eating a ball is an emergency that requires immediate medical attention. According to Dr Stan Kunin in his article on gastrointestinal obstruction, a dog’s ingestion of a tennis ball is a serious medical case: “Without prompt care and close supervision with your veterinarian, these dogs could very well die.” Regarding treatment, he explains further:
These dogs need to be seen as soon as possible, whether at your regular day time veterinary clinic or at an after hour emergency care facility. A full physical exam will need to be performed to check for other symptoms. Some warning signs, such as tenderness while palpitating the abdomen, are a clear indicator that something is not normal. Vital signs need to be assessed and monitored to search for things like a rapid heart rate or an abnormal coloration of the mucous membrane. Also, determining whether the animal is dehydrated is important to ascertain as well. One vital diagnostic tool would be to x-ray the abdomen. The doctor will establish if a foreign object is evident, or whether the stomach and intestines are showing signs of distress. A dense foreign body such as a rock, metal, rubber, or bone will show up on the radiograph. However, paper, plastic, plant materials, clothing are not always apparent. Before further diagnostic steps are taken, the patient will be started on intravenous fluid therapy, antibiotic, and pain relief. More tests may be indicated, such as an ultrasound, barium swallow, or endoscopy. A decision will be made on whether to do a wait-and-see approach and treat conservatively, or if immediate surgery is necessary.
It seems to be the general consensus among professionals. This blog post, written by a veterinarian, details a similar emergency in which only part of a tennis ball was consumed by a dog. The post says “Fortunately, I was able to retrieve the debris by the simple expedient of inducing vomiting. No surgery was needed to extract it (before or after a blockage occurred).” A FAQ written by a professional trainer notes “If a dog eats a tennis ball it will often kill him because it gets stuck in his bowels.”
Eli’s veterinary emergency
Eli needed a thorough physical examination from a veterinarian, as described above, and then closely monitored to rule out whether he required surgery. Common sense and humanity aside, California Civil Code 1834 states that dogs within our sheltering system must receive “necessary and prompt veterinary care”:
A depositary of living animals shall provide the animals with necessary and prompt veterinary care, nutrition, and shelter, and treat them kindly. Any depositary that fails to perform these duties may be liable for civil damages as provided by law.
According to the professionals, Eli should have had a complete examination that included an x-ray. Eli’s kennel card indicates he was apparently x-rayed four days after the incident. However, these records are incomplete as it was confirmed that the shelter does not have an x-ray machine on premises, and Eli’s kennel records do not indicate he left the shelter to see a vet. At this time, the shelter has not responded to record requests regarding Eli’s transport or this examination.
Eli may have had an x-ray four days after eating a tennis ball, but there are no records of him leaving the shelter and detailed records have not been provided. This note was not in his file until long after his death.
But did Eli even see a vet for an x-ray?
Volunteer Dixie Keith was concerned about what happened with Eli, and had a meeting with shelter management after he was killed to review his records. Dixie states: “We went over Eli’s 3-4 page records. Very minimal. We could only find where Eli had radiographs weeks before he ate the tennis ball…We could not find where Eli had radiographs after the incident.”
It is possible that the kennel note regarding radiographs taken after the tennis ball incident (seen above) were added after the shelter was being questioned regarding his death. To this date, requests for medical records or even transport records for these tests have been ignored by the shelter.
Eli’s behavior: possessive, or stressed and in pain?
Eli was re-evaluated for his temperament before he was seen by a vet for eating a tennis ball, and was said to become aggressive towards another dog (no Behavior Assessment was provided by Sonoma County as requested). Although the official reason for killing Eli was “severe medical issues”, informal emails and a kennel note suggest that a final behavior evaluation, not long after ingesting a tennis ball and before seeing a medical professional, was one of the reasons he was killed.
What does seem clear was that Eli arrived as a “fearful” dog at the shelter, and by August 11th he successfully passed his temperament evaluation and was said to have “played with 2 other dogs” and was “easy to handle”.
Many weeks later we begin to see conflicting reports regarding his temperament at the shelter. Eli’s kennel notes report two completely different behaviors on the very same day. On November 1st, 2012, Eli was said to be so stressed in his kennel he was “painting” kennel walls, although another note from that day says he was “friendly when meeting other dogs” and “easy to handle”. The following day, November 2nd 2012, Eli ate the tennis ball noted earlier in this article. The tennis ball could not be removed from his mouth, and he consumed the toy. The behavior notes in his official file say “after noticing that he was trying to chew up the ball, she tried to get it from him. She said he was being very possessive of the ball and swallowed it as fast as he could before she could get it.” As many of us know, toy possession problems can include posturing, growling, or motions to nip or bite. This behavior is not unheard of in dogs – particularly ones already in a stressful environment, one where there are many competing animals with limited resources (food, toys, and human attention). It is also something that can be modified, or at least managed.
These notes conflict with reports of Eli’s behavior witnessed only a week earlier. Eli attended an adoption event on October 27th 2012, at which volunteer Dixie Keith was present. She said that this event was attended hundreds of people and many dogs, and Eli did not demonstrate any aggressive behavior. Dixie details “he also had two tennis balls that he played with all day, and I heard of no problems taking them away from him when it was time to go home.” She also notes that each volunteer had a dog with them, and everyone was standing together at the adoption event. Despite being amongst so many people and other dogs that day, and playing with toys, Eli did not exhibit any behavior problems.
If Eli did have toy possession issues, it does not appear that this behavior continued outside of the shelter. While toy possession issues can sometimes be more serious than food possession issues, food reactivity is said to disappear in over 90% of all shelter dogs simply by leaving the shelter. This could have been evaluated by placing Eli in a foster home, even temporarily, but unfortunately volunteers were not contacted regarding foster placement. An even easier option would be to remove him from the shelter environment on another “day trip” to evaluate behavioral changes, facilitating an experienced volunteer if necessary.
So it isn’t clear how bad the possessive nature of Eli was, or whether it was an issue at all outside of the shelter. It’s also not clear if he was truly an aggressive dog. But considering this behavior with toys and amongst other dogs was not exhibited one week earlier, it does not appear Eli had an overly serious case of aggression or something that couldn’t be resolved outside of shelter walls. And certainly does not warrant a death sentence, or inhumanely leaving him in pain.
The final behavior evaluation
Eli had his behavior re-tested by the shelter not long before he was killed, and informal emails and a kennel note suggest this could have been one reason given for killing him. It is important to note that this evaluation occurred after he ate a tennis ball and had not been seen or treated by a vet. However, our public record requests for the details this behavior examination have been ignored by the shelter.
It is possible that Eli was in pain for this test, due to his medical condition combined with the regular stress of being at a shelter, and was killed as a result of this unfair set-up. Any dog experiencing pain can behave unpredictably until they are relieved of that pain or stress.
Concerned volunteer retaliated against
Eli was killed at SCACC, unbeknownst to the volunteers. The shelter reportedly contacted “some of their rescue partners” about Eli, although it is unknown who was actually contacted. What we do know is those who knew and loved Eli at the shelter were not asked to foster him. SCACC has 125 volunteers, and about 40 of their volunteers also foster animals. Volunteers were surprised to learn that Eli was killed, and several noted that had they known of his troubles and any plans to kill him, they would have volunteered to foster him.
It almost goes without saying that a change of process is sorely needed, which SCACC volunteers voiced to shelter management. However, one of the volunteers who was critical of this process and Eli’s treatment was asked to leave her volunteer position as a result. Dixie Keith volunteered at SCACC for over 5 years, and loved her role. She says “I am passionate about being a volunteer, helping the shelter animals, the shelter programs such as spay/neuter, recently reintroduced, and finding the animals Forever Homes.” Dixie was asked to leave her position after she questioned the shelter about Eli and the procedures that the shelter did not follow leading to his death. She says, “I was given no answers to my questions concerning Eli.”
Volunteer and Rescues protected by law to voice their concerns
Dixie was removed from her volunteer position after sharing her concerns with SCACC management, and although this is unfortunately quite common, it is also against the law. Government agencies (or organizations contracted by government agencies) are not allowed to retaliate against or refuse to work with volunteers or rescue partners for exercising their First Amendment Rights.
The relevant section of the law, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, protects Dixie’s right to volunteer:
Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage . . . subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress.
As further explained by the No Kill Advocacy Center:
A rescuer or volunteer not only has the First Amendment right to speak out against actions committed by a governmental entity, he or she also has a constitutionally protected right to demand that the government correct the wrongs that are identified. As the Supreme Court has stated, a government entity “may not deny a benefit to a person on a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected interests—especially, his interest in freedom of speech.
It is therefore illegal for any government-run, or government contracted, shelter to retaliate against a volunteer or rescue for voicing concern or criticism about an animal shelter, which of course includes blocking access to the shelter and/or its animals. For more information on this section of law, as it pertains to animal sheltering, please refer to this document by the No Kill Advocacy Center.
Questions about what happened to Eli remain
Eli had bad luck at Sonoma County Animal Care and Control.
- Eli ate foreign objects, and did not receive the prompt veterinary care required by California Civil Code Section 1834. Record requests have been submitted for any documentation of vet care, but requests have not been honored.
- Eli was said to be possessive of toys and dog aggressive, but could have occurred due to shelter stress and pain – both resolvable issues.
- Eli was unfairly evaluated for temperament after ingesting a tennis ball and possibly a zipper, with no records of being seen by a vet for the incident before this evaluation.
- If Eli was seen by a vet and x-rayed, it occurred four days after eating an entire tennis ball.
- Eli was killed before due diligence was performed in finding him foster care, as 140 volunteers at SCACC were not approached for help.
- Volunteer Dixie Keith was asked to leave her volunteer position for exercising her First Amendment rights, in violation of section 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Requests for medical records and behavior tests, among other questions, were sent to the shelter due to the concerns of Dixie Keith and others who knew and cared for Eli. The shelter acknowledged receipt of these questions and record requests, however has not answered any queries or provided documentation of Eli’s medical care. So these, and other, questions remain regarding Eli. Most importantly: why did Eli not receive prompt veterinary care after he ate a tennis ball, as California Civil Code Section 1834 states he must? And why was Dixie Keith relieved of her duties after exercising her First Amendment rights, protected by law for any volunteer at a government organization?