Monday, June 28, 2010

County shelter euthanizes dog after clerk's blunder

By Susannah Bryan, Sun Sentinel

Life hasn't been the same for Jennifer Micucci and her kids since their dog Chopper went missing.

The 6-year-old golden-haired pit bull mix slipped through the backyard fence and wound up at the Broward County-run shelter in Pompano Beach on June 10.

Fearing he was gone for good, the family was relieved to find their canine companion four days later, in an online listing.

But Chopper won't be coming home. He was euthanized on June 16, the same day Micucci had arranged to pick him up.

Broward officials blame the blunder on a county call center employee who failed to notify the shelter that Chopper's owner was coming for him.

Shelter employees assumed Chopper was a stray because he didn't have a tag, said Lisa Mendheim, spokeswoman for the county's Animal Care and Regulation Division.

"When we see that tag, we know the animal belongs to somebody," Mendheim said.

The scandal-plagued agency has been under scrutiny since March, when the Sun Sentinel ran a story about county shelter workers euthanizing O'Malley, a cat with a microchip. The cat's owners were not contacted until after his death.

The incident sparked a wider investigation of the county's treatment of stray animals and lost pets. The inquiry resulted in tighter protocols to ensure staffers are properly searching for microchips, Mendheim said.

Micucci, 29, said she spotted Chopper on the county's online list of missing and abandoned animals around 4:30 p.m. on Monday, June 14.

She called right away to claim him, but said she was told the dog was in Fort Lauderdale. She didn't think she'd make it there before the shelter closed.

Wondering why he would have been taken to Fort Lauderdale, she called back and found out the dog was actually at the county's Pompano shelter.

But that shelter was closed on Monday and Tuesday, so she wouldn't be able to pick him up until Wednesday, June 16.

That morning, she called the shelter to check on the dog and say she was coming for him around 2 p.m. After five minutes on hold, a man came on the phone and told her Chopper had already been put down.

"I was hysterical," Micucci said. "I cried for days."

Micucci said her four kids – ages 1, 3, 8 and 14 – were so happy to hear Chopper would be coming home. And now they're sad he's gone forever.

"He was like one of my kids," Micucci said. "He was the most lovable dog. He played hide and seek with the kids. He was their big stuffed animal."

Chopper was one of six dogs euthanized at the Pompano shelter that day. His cremated remains were taken to the county landfill in Coconut Creek.

Dogs and cats without ID tags are typically euthanized three days after they are brought to the shelter. Animals with tags are put down after five days if no one comes for them.

Chopper got a couple extra days because the Pompano location was closed on Monday and Tuesday.

County law requires that every dog and cat wear tags, even those kept indoors, Mendheim said.

Chopper had a collar, but was not wearing it when he got out, his owner said.

"We have a collar with tags, but that's only when he goes for a walk," Micucci said. "I don't leave it on 24 hours a day. He stayed inside the house. He's never been loose before."

The county posts photos of missing and abandoned dogs and cats on its website at http://www.Broward.org/animal. The animals are listed under Daily Intake.

"If you see your pet, call us immediately, and then come in right away and identify that as your pet," Mendheim said. "Bring a photo or vet record to show proof."

County spokeswoman Judy Sarver said Micucci should have identified herself as the dog's owner and made it clear she wanted the dog kept alive until she could pick him up. Sarver declined to identify the call center employee, though she acknowledged his name is public record.

Sarver said the county employee would not face discipline for failing to ask whether Micucci wanted her dog back.

"Would we have liked him to ask? Yes," Sarver said. "But there was no misconduct."

Micucci says she is too distraught to be angry.

"He went missing, and then we found him and thought he was coming home," she said. "And then that morning, to find out he's gone over someone's mistake. It's such a heartbreaker."

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