Shelter manager's dismissal over dog's euthanasia has lessons for all

UPDATE: First, the Rich and Sally Meyers Animal Shelter of Adams County did receive $16,000 in funding from Adams County in 2011, $5,000 increase over 2010, according to the county budget. However only 8 percent of the shelter's total annual budget of $500,000 came from the county and local municipalities.

Second, to clarify the procedure involved with the 48-hour hold rule, the rule reads: 

State dog warden, employee of the department or animal control officer shall cause any unlicensed dog to be seized, detained, kept and fed for a period of 48 hours at any licensed kennel approved by the secretary for those purposes, except any dog seriously ill or injured or forfeited with the owner's permission.

Experts tell me that once the dog is "under control," be it in at the end of a catch pole, in a crate or in the shelter's kennel, it is no longer a "public threat" and must be held for at least 48 hours.

I learned this morning that the board of my local SPCA, the Rick and Sally Meyers Animal Shelter in Gettysburg, had fired its shelter manager.

The dismissal came after published reports last week revealed that manager Dawn Wike had euthanized a stray dog in July, shortly after bringing it to the shelter. She initially defended her actions, saying the dog - a Norwegian elkhound/Lab mix bit an individual at the residence where the dog was found and then bit her as she tried to load it in the SPCA van, according to news reports.

Wike, who was both a humane officer and the shelter manager, responded to a report of a stray dog on the July 4th weekend. The dog, named Max, had escaped from a farm during a thunderstorm, according to its owners, Dale and Kathy Seymore, who were away at the time, but had someone looking after the dog.

"It does not appear that proper procedure was followed," Board President Katie Carroll said of the euthanasia decision. "Up until this point Ms. Wike has been an outstanding asset to the shelter."

Carroll told the Public Opinion of Chambersburg the shelter's policy is to hold a dog until it calms down and its temperment is assessed.

"We want to hold a dog for as long as possible" before making a decision, she said.

The incident came to light after Mt. Pleasant Township, where the dog's owners lived, announced it was pulling funding for the shelter because of Wike's actions.

The whole tragic story points up so many problems that have statewide. resonance starting with: 

The hasty decision by the animal control officer/shelter manager to euthanize the dog.

Wike did not wait the state-mandated 48 hours before putting down the dog. This was not the first time Wike made a life and death decision in a short time. Adams County Dog Warden Georgia Martin had cited her for her snap decision to destroy a stray pit bull one month earlier. (That citation dismissed by the Adams County disrict attorney who said there was no case law on the issue.) 

A shelter officer can in fact order an animal put down before the 48 hour period is up if they determine it poses a danger.

The incident underscores the very real conflict inherent when the shelter director, who makes the decisions about euthanasia, is also the humane officer, the one who captured - and may well have been injured by the animal.

A friend who has been involved in big city shelter management for five years, said he knew of only one case among thousands he oversaw where a dog was destroyed immediately upon arriving at his shelter. In that case the dog, a fighting pit bull, was out of control and attacking itself.

He also said being on the receiving end of a dog bite is part of the job for humane officers. Of course, they are charged with capturing an animal that is under tremendous stress and may well be sick or injured or trained to attack. Humane officer work is hazardous without a doubt.

Then there is the issue of the hair-trigger responses of townships which pull funding from shelters for narrowly-defined reasons.

The Meyers shelter was, until recently, known as the Adams County SPCA. In the last year it dropped "Adams County" from its name because it said it led people to believe it was county supported when in fact it received no funding from the county. 

Today the shelter serves only those townships who pay to support it (To the townships across the state who think stray dogs are someone else's problem, you think stray dogs don't cross township lines? Hello?).

Of course this sad state of affairs contributed to the decision of the Delaware County SPCA to stop taking strays, period. (Though we note that ground breaking has taken place at last for a new county operated shelter. See my colleague Mari Schafer's report here.) 

This passing the hat business that shelters are forced to engage in every year has also led to other struggling county SPCA's, among them Lancaster Humane, to decide to stop serving townships that do not help fund them.

Why don't people in the so-called "Commonwealth" of Pennsylvania regard what happens beyond their township lines within the broader county a community issue?

Who gets hurt? Sadly, animals and those who love them. 

 Who wins in Adams County? No one. Who loses? Everyone.

Will the township now reverse its decision and agree to pay its annual $2,500 contribution to the shelter? Maybe.

The Seymores say they did not have the intention of hurting the shelter and have decided not to file suit.

An attorney who specializes in dog bites, though, said the Seymores would have no grounds to sue since the dog was running at large and had no license or ID.

But the incident has left the county with only one humane officer and SPCA board chairwoman Carroll told the Public Opinion the board is now weighing whether it wants to provide any animal control to any municipality considering the costs.

So we have yet another countywide Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which may decide that the "prevention of cruelty" part is an expendable part of its name.