As chair of the Baltimore County Animal Services Advisory Commission, I want to address an evolving issue involving Baltimore County Animal Services. The issue concerns the recent death of a dog named Oscar.
This story began swirling on social media around the New Year’s holiday after a Facebook post about Oscar freezing to death in his owner’s back yard at 1135 Regina Drive.
The case is under investigation by the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s office and a necropsy has been performed. The results of the necropsy and investigation will provide more complete answers as to what caused Oscar’s death and whether charges against the owner are warranted.
Regardless of that outcome, the Commission is concerned with a larger issue…whether Baltimore County Animal Control responded properly after receiving a citizen’s call concerning the dog’s welfare, whether Animal Control procedures and protocols are adequate and appropriate, and, if not, whether changes will be made.
Fred Homan has sent members of the Council a case summary about the events on Regina Drive. It shows Animal Control had a long history of complaints (21 complaints from March 3, 2009 through December 13, 2017) concerning the welfare of Oscar and another dog at the Regina Dr. address.
The case summary doesn’t indicate whether these calls ever resulted in citations or whether the dog’s owner was required to take any action.
But it does note the property had a functional dog door, and that the two dogs appeared healthy and had access to the home’s basement, where there was adequate food, water, and bedding.
On Dec. 30, 2017 at 8:12 AM Animal Control received its 22nd call about the address, complaining that a dog had been left outside, perhaps all night, in the extreme cold. Temperatures were hovering in the teens, and there was snow on the ground.
The call taker recognized the address, and called the dog’s owner, Mr. Gnanakkan, who reportedly said he would bring the dog in out of the cold.
Unfortunately, this appears to have been impossible to accomplish, because, according to a statement from Mr. Gnanakkan’s father in the police report, Mr. Gnanakkan had left to go out of town on Dec. 28th and would not return to Baltimore until Jan. 3rd.
The call taker apparently took Mr. Gnanakkan’s word and did not dispatch an officer. If an officer had responded, it’s difficult to know what he or she would have found. Might the dog door have been frozen shut because of the extreme temperatures or was it blocked in some way? Might Oscar have been so impaired by the cold that he could not get to the door?
What we do know is that according to the police report, Mr. Gnanakkan’s father told police he went to the address (many hours after that morning’s citizen complaint to Animal Control) between 6 and 6:30 PM on Dec. 30th. and found the dog in the yard, unable to stand. He told police his wife “was able to push” Oscar into the basement “so he could be warm.” They then left the residence.
Upon returning later, the dog had its mouth open and appeared to be suffocating. Some time later the dog died.
As an advisory commission, our task is not to conduct an investigation into Animal Control’s response. But we are tasked with asking questions, receiving answers, and acting in an advisory capacity. We believe we, and you, as members of the County Council, need to learn the answers to numerous questions:
1) Why did Animal Control not respond to the Regina Drive address after receiving the complaint on the morning of Dec. 30th?
2) Regardless of whether Oscar’s death was caused by exposure to the cold, was he put in harm’s way by the decision not to dispatch an officer?
3) Did the call taker follow rules when determining not to dispatch an officer?
4) If not, what action is Animal Services taking to ensure that officers and call takers respond properly in the future?
5) If procedures were followed, do those procedures need to be revised?
6) Is Animal Control staffing adequate?
7) Is Animal Control training adequate?
Unfortunately, despite many months of close collaboration and trust between Animal Services and the Commission, open communication between us has broken down.
The Commission’s liaison committee normally meets with shelter representatives and Fred Homan each month, but when we asked to schedule a time, we were told that no one was available for a meeting.
Through email, we have requested specific information to help us better understand what took place. Only some of that information has been provided.
Without open communication, we are unable to fulfill the Commission’s advisory mission.
In the Commission’s two annual reports, we’ve maintained the need for the county to be transparent in its shelter operations. The handling of this issue is an indication that transparency is still sorely lacking.
The county was not open about what was happening in this case as it unfolded. Instead it quickly issued a statement that “These allegations have been investigated by Baltimore County Animal Services and the Police Department and there was no evidence of animal mistreatment and no cause to charge anyone. It was determined that the 15 year-old Chow-Chow died of natural causes and that a family member was caring for the dog when it died. Upon the dog’s death, the family member took the dog’s remains to an emergency veterinarian to be cremated.”
In fact, at the time that statement was issued
· The police investigation appeared incomplete, as the dog’s owner was out of town and had not yet been interviewed in person. In phone conversations with police officers, he had provided contradictory information.
· A necropsy had not been conducted to determine the cause of Oscar’s death.
· The case summary says BCAS did not even know the State’s Attorney’s office had opened an investigation, had taken the dog’s body, and was waiting for necropsy results.
The Baltimore County Animal Services Advisory Commission has been a loud and proud champion for the county’s animal shelter over the last two years. There has been enormous progress, as well as tremendous success in improving live release rates.
In the last quarter of 2017, those live release rates were above 90% for both dogs and cats. This is a wonderful achievement.
This latest incident does not un-do any of those accomplishments.
But there is clearly a need for answers here. And again, it’s imperative that there is more transparency with the Commission and the public.
When things are hidden, it creates the appearance of wrongdoing. That perception quickly feeds a storm of anger that then erupts on social media.
This, in turn, can only hurt the shelter and its caring administrators and staff, who are working so diligently to save lives.
We ask that you move to address these issues, intervene on the Commission’s behalf in our effort to work with the shelter and resurrect the relationship of cooperation that previously existed, and obtain answers to the questions outlined above.
Deborah Stone Hess
Chair, Baltimore County Animal Services Advisory Commission