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Pit bull at center of Sonoma County shelter adoption dispute

Dawn Justice and her husband took a chance on the pit bull when they adopted her from Sonoma County’s animal shelter in September.

The dog reportedly had been owned by a gang member brought up on murder charges. She was pregnant when she entered the Century Court shelter and she walked with a limp, something Justice, a Santa Rosa yoga teacher and longtime shelter volunteer, noticed when the couple agreed to foster the pit bull after she gave birth to a litter of puppies.

Shelter veterinarians determined the dog was suffering a minor soft-tissue?injury before declaring her healthy for adoption. But at her new home, the newly anointed “Tallulah Blockhead” still showed signs of distress while making mischief with her owners’ two other pit bulls.

“As soon as she started running for the ball, she was limping again,” Justice said.

The wound has festered into a full-blown dispute that reveals broader issues with pet adoptions in Sonoma County.

The couple discovered after taking Tallulah to their own vet that she has a fractured leg. They suspect the injury was misdiagnosed by shelter veterinarians prior to the adoption. But so far, their demand that the county help cover the $1,200 surgery bill has been met with solid resistance.

The dispute encompasses more than one dog. All shelters, and everyone who adopts a new companion from one, must contend with the possibility that at some point, the animal might be stricken with a previously undiagnosed ailment, or develop a new one. The question is: Whose responsibility is it to pay for treatment?

A review of policies at shelters around the North Bay reveals there is no consistency in addressing that particular concern. Some shelters set a timeline before the cost of medical expenses related to a sick or injured animal falls on the new owner. Such timelines vary from one shelter to the next. The nonprofit Sonoma Humane Society, which operates a shelter on Highway 12 near Sebastopol, has no formal policy on the issue.

The county shelter’s adoption contract “recommends” that new pet owners have the animal examined by a private veterinarian within 10 days of the adoption. The document also states that the animal should be brought back to the shelter and examined there if it becomes ill within three days of leaving the facility.

John Skeel, director of Sonoma County Animal Services, sought to clarify those provisions this week. He stated in an email that new owners are responsible for any medical expenses unless the dog takes ill within three days and is returned to the shelter. He said vets there have up to seven days to treat the animal.

While he expressed empathy for Tallulah’s plight and that of her new owners, Skeel said the county cannot help cover the cost of the dog’s surgical care without violating the terms of the contract and possibly opening the door to more claims. More than 1,200 animals were adopted from the shelter last fiscal year - out of more than 3,200 brought to the facility.

“It would be setting a precedent if we suddenly did a surgery, or paid for a surgery, months after (the fact),” he said in an interview.

Justice, who was honored as the county shelter’s volunteer of the year in 2006, does not claim ignorance of the medical-expense policy. But she argues it does not apply to her situation because shelter vets misdiagnosed her dog’s injury prior to the adoption.

“I’m not a huge shelter basher. I know there are really great people there,” she said. “But I feel this was a really bad decision.”

Justice and her husband had taken over Tallulah’s foster care from a Sonoma County Animal Services officer after the dog delivered puppies. When the couple noticed the dog was limping, Justice took her to the shelter for an examination.

Veterinarian Catherine Mackenzie was the first to examine the dog, on Sept. 8, according to shelter medical records provided by Skeel. The vet discovered a “palpably painful” spot in the elbow area of the dog’s left leg. She prescribed “strict rest and careful monitoring” for the following week, as well as pain medication. She further noted that the next diagnostic step might include X-rays.

Justice said she followed the vet’s orders, and at a follow-up exam at the shelter 10 days later, the pit bull appeared better. “Per foster” - referring to Justice - “greatly improved.”

The couple adopted the dog that day.

Justice said in hindsight it makes sense that Tallulah was doing better because the dog was medicated and resting. She said Tallulah’s limp returned after she was off the meds and running again. Justice sought help from her own vet, who discovered the fracture after taking X-rays of the injured leg.

According to Justice, the exam revealed a diamond-shaped piece of bone that has broken loose inside the dog’s left leg.

“It has to be removed, or she will limp for the rest of her life, and it will cause damage to the surrounding tissues,” Justice said.

Justice said she sent the exam results to Mackenzie, who in addition to being the first to examine Tallulah at the shelter also used to be Justice’s personal vet. Justice said she also lobbied other shelter staff for help, to no avail.

Skeel said he did not hear from Justice until Nov. 20, more than a month after the adoption. He noted that the fracture - which he had not independently verified as of earlier this week - could be the result of something new and unrelated to what was seen at the shelter.

Skeel also disputed the characterization that shelter veterinarians misdiagnosed the dog’s injuries to begin with. He said the vets can only administer cursory exams, given the shelter’s limited resources and the volume of animals passing through the system.

“It’s not an actual diagnosis,” he said. “We would have to take X-rays or do much more thorough exams.”

Petaluma’s animal shelter has a similar policy of shifting the burden of medical expenses to new pet owners 10 days after the adoption. But Jeff Charter, the shelter’s executive director, said Tallulah’s surgery should be covered by the county because it’s likely the dog’s injury predated the adoption.

“This isn’t a business where you’re trying to make money,” he said. “This is a business where you’re trying to do the right thing, especially in this case, where the person is volunteering their time to the organization and re-homing an animal that is difficult to place.”

The Sonoma Humane Society has no formal policy dealing with medical expenses for adopted animals.

Kiska Icard, the agency’s executive director, said the shelter frequently deals with people who are having trouble keeping an adopted pet, including paying for the animal’s medical care.

“It’s really on a case-by-case basis,” she said.

Icard said in general, shelters should strive to help people cover the cost as an alternative to people surrendering the animal.

“You’re still going to have to treat it, house it and find it another home. That’s expensive,” she said. “Add on top of that the animal’s behavior in the shelter. It’s a stressful environment.”

Icard said the Humane Society has advantages many other shelters don’t have, including an on-site veterinary hospital.

But neither she nor Charter were particularly receptive to Skeel’s argument that the county doesn’t have the resources to provide more complete examinations for animals or to help specifically with Tallulah’s care.

“They have more staff, more money and a bigger facility,” Charter said. “If I can do 1,700 animals with a staff of eight, why can’t they do 4,000 with a staff of 35?”

Skeel said he could find no other example of a situation similar to Tallulah’s in his review of shelter records.

Justice said she has no intention of surrendering Tallulah in order to avoid having to pay for the dog’s surgical care. The pit bull is now part of her family. But affording the surgery will be a challenge for the couple. In addition to teaching yoga, Justice sells “ugly” holiday sweaters online. Her husband works for a roofing supply company.

Justice believes she and her husband saved Tallulah from a much worse fate.

“It’s just heartbreaking,” she said of shelter conditions. “There are rows and rows of pit bulls, and they don’t kennel well. They lose their minds.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@deadlinederek.

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