Kent animal shelter is focus of lawsuit in dog’s death

When Elma residents Chani Hayes and Gary Cobb took their dog Littlegirl to a family activity in Des Moines last September, little did they know less than a month later their dog would be dead, and they would be suing King County Animal Control for the lack of care they claim occurred at the county’s Kent-based shelter. Represented by Bellingham animal-welfare lawyer Adam Karp, Hayes and Cobb are now suing King County Animal Care & Control, and veterinarian Marilyn Christensen, for damages in the death of their dog.

When Elma residents Chani Hayes and Gary Cobb took their dog Littlegirl to a family activity in Des Moines last September, little did they know less than a month later their dog would be dead, and they would be suing King County Animal Control for the lack of care they claim occurred at the county’s Kent-based shelter.

Represented by Bellingham animal-welfare lawyer Adam Karp, Hayes and Cobb are now suing King County Animal Care & Control, and veterinarian Marilyn Christensen, for damages in the death of their dog.

One element of the case will go before King County Superior Court Judge Andrea Darvas 10 a.m. July 30 at the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.

At that time, Karp will be arguing to dismiss two entities in the case: Des Moines animal-control officer Jan Magnuson and Des Moines Animal Control.

“No evidence in the record exists to raise a genuine issue of material fact as to the fault of Officer Magnuson and/or Des Moines Animal Control,” Karp wrote in a motion requesting to dismiss the city and the officer from the suit. Magnuson, working for Des Moines Animal Control, was the responding officer who first brought the dog for quarantine to the shelter.

The case will go to trial Oct. 17, 2011.

Karp said the case goes beyond one dog.

“It’s not just about what happened to Littlegirl,” Karp said in a phone interview July 8. “It’s a systemic problem. This was inevitable, but it was avoidable. Had the county heeded repeated warnings (about the shelter) and accepted offers of help from the community, however, her death would have been completely avoidable.”

A family visit to Des Moines

When they went to visit Hayes’ mother in Des Moines, to help her with a yard sale Sept. 13, animal-control issues were far from Hayes’ mind. She and Cobb had raised Littlegirl from a puppy, the runt in the litter, and the dog accompanied them everywhere.

“We had her for 9 years – she was one of the kids,” Hayes said in a phone interview July 13, of the Boston bull terrier-mix dog. “She grew up with our kids.”

At the end of the day Sept. 13, the couple was assisting Hayes’ mother after the yard sale. Littlegirl was on a chain, the end of which was secured to a desk near the driveway. The couple’s 5-year-old son, Riley, was outside with the dog. Hayes, who was holding her newborn baby, realized she needed to go back upstairs to use the restroom. She asked Riley to unclip Littlegirl’s chain so that they could load the dog into the family’s truck.

That was when things started to go wrong.

‘I was really surprised’

While Hayes was inside, a neighbor of Hayes’ mom stopped by for a visit, and was walking around the truck. Littlegirl, whom Hayes said was normally playful around people, suddenly became aggressive. That may have been a protective action, due to the presence of Riley, who was holding her leash, Hayes thinks. In those few moments that Hayes was in the house, Littlegirl went on the defensive. She lunged and bit the neighbor on the stomach. Then, when he fell to the ground, she bit him again, this time puncturing the skin on his arm.

“I was really surprised she did that,” Hayes said, noting that on past trips with Littlegirl “we never had to worry.”

A Des Moines animal-control officer was summoned – Jan Magnuson, according to court documents - and she informed them that Littlegirl would need to go into quarantine because she had bitten someone. Magnuson didn’t issue a citation, but she did load Littlegirl into her car.

Riley, crying, watched as the dog was loaded up and driven away.

Because Des Moines at the time had a contract with King County for shelter services, Magnuson took Littlegirl to the Kent Animal Shelter.

Quarantine begins

Although Hayes said Magnuson originally told them Littlegirl would be quarantined for three days, the officer contacted them the next day to explain the quarantine actually needed to be 15 days. By this time the family was back in Elma in Grays Harbor County, a fairly long distance from Kent.

“Because of the logistics, we didn’t even know if we could (come to see the dog),” Hayes said. “We just kept in contact with Jan. I was pretty emotional.”

Every time they would call to check on the dog’s progress, Hayes said Magnuson always told them Littlegirl was fine.

But Littlegirl, in fact, was not fine. The dog, which Hayes said was healthy and interactive before her stay at the Kent shelter, picked up kennel cough, apparently while in quarantine. At one point, shelter staff also placed her with another dog - a violation of the shelter’s own policies, and a point in which the county is not contending. The cough worsened to the point where Littlegirl was no longer eating, according to veterinary records included in the court documents.

Meanwhile Cobbs and Hayes made preparations to pick up their dog after her last day of quarantine, looking forward to taking her back home.

“We had no clue anything was happening,” Hayes claimed.

‘Just sickly looking’

It wasn’t until the couple arrived at the shelter, and began talking to a staffer, Hayes said, that they realized something wasn’t right.

“She came out and apologized. She was apologizing up and down,” Hayes said of the staffer, whose name she doesn’t recall, and who is described but not named in court documents. “We were like, ‘what’s going on?’ Finally Gary said, ‘will you just go and get her?’

“They brought her out and we weren’t quite ready” (for what they saw.) Usually she’s really frolicky, really playful. She walked out with her head down and her tail between her legs. She was really thin and had a coarse coat, and was just sickly looking. I immediately got down to her on the floor on my knees.

“What happened? She was brought here 16 days ago and this is not our dog.”

‘We trusted the system’

After paying the shelter $238 for the dog’s lodging and vet care, the couple took Littlegirl home, with antibiotics that Hayes claimed staff assured them would enable Littlegirl to recover.

“They gave us the papers, said ‘she has kennel cough. Give her this medicine; it’ll be fine,’” Hayes recalled.

Littlegirl was actually in her final hours. According to court documents, the couple arrived in Elma around 8:30 p.m. – too late to take the dog to a veterinarian. Instead, they nursed her through the night.

“The next morning she was gone,” Hayes said.

It was Cobb, who after taking Riley to day-care came back to find the dog dead.

Today, nearly a year since Littlegirl’s death, Hayes still has trouble refraining from crying. She said she’s frustrated with a system she had no choice but to believe would care for her dog.

“We trusted the system, basically,” she said. “We did what we were told. I had reassurance from them (the dog would be fine, provided they give her medicine.)”

Karp, representing the couple, said there is a basic level of expectation when an entity an animal-control authority seizes a dog. The people who own the animal have no options but to surrender the animal, and they expect it to be cared for appropriately, he said.

“It’s one thing if I voluntarily board my animal at a vet hospital because I’m going out of town,” he said. “This was different - it wasn’t voluntary.”

County response

In its response to the couple’s suit, King County is acknowledging past reports critical of the shelter, but is denying they are relevant to this particular case.

The county also is not arguing with the couple’s claim that Littlegirl was “inadvertently kenneled with another dog curing her quarantine,” according to documents in the case.

But the county is denying the couple’s claim that they weren’t told just how sick Littlegirl was when they came to pick her up. The county also is claiming Littlegirl’s health issues were actually Des Moines’ fault.

“The damages and/or injuries sustained, if any, were proximately caused by the negligent actions and/or omissions of third persons, namely Des Moines Animal Control and Animal Control Officer Jan Magnuson, over whom the King County defendants had no control, and over which the King County defendants had no choice,” the county’s response to the suit, written by county Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jessica Hardung, states.

The county response also claims its staffers “at all times acted in good faith in the performance of their duties and are therefore immune” from the law suit.

In a court declaration by Dr. Christensen filed Monday, Christensen questioned why Magnuson specified the quarantine be 15 days, rather than the usual 10 days recommended by King County and the Centers for Disease Control.

“It is arguable that Littlegirl would have fully recovered if she had been released to her owners after 10 days of quarantine, as recommended by the CDC and King County,” Christensen stated in her declaration.

Magnuson, reached at the DesMoines Police Dept. Tuesday, referred questions to Des Moines City Attorney Susan Mahoney. Mahoney did not return a call prior to press deadline Wednesday.

The Reporter left a voice message for shelter manager Ken Nakatsu, which was not returned prior to Wednesday’s press deadline.

Karp earlier had moved to dismiss Magnuson and Des Moines from the case, which was granted, and as of Wednesday, hadn’t indicated any move to change that.

Going to court

Where the case goes from here will be the call of a King County Superior Court judge.

Regardless of what gets decided, Hayes said she’s still dealing with the ramifications of Littlegirl’s death, especially with her son who still questions why a police officer took his dog, and why his dog came back sick and dying.

“I don’t want anyone else to have to explain something like this to their 5-year-old,” she said.

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