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Lifestyle Pets

Harford County shelter to review policies in light of pet's death

The Harford County Humane Society's board will review its policy on euthanasia Friday after a Bel Air man's cat was mistaken for a stray and put down within hours of arriving at the shelter. The man's lawyer and the shelter are also in settlement talks.

"I loved that cat like a person," said Robert Brooks, the cat's owner. "I loved her for 18 years. I never would have put her in harm's way."

Brooks found the cat, which he named Mistoffelees, in 1995 and took her home, where she remained an indoor pet for 18 years. She hated wearing a collar and so went without one, he said.

Brooks said he was out of town June 28 when Mistoffelees got outside and was taken by a neighbor, who didn't know where the cat lived, to the shelter. The neighbor, Jason Simpson, said the cat was skinny but came when he called and was friendly.

The Humane Society's board president, David Fang, said Mistoffelees hissed, tried to bite and scratched at shelter employees from a cage, acting in what he called "a feral manner." Workers then used a model rubber hand on a stick to approach the caged cat.

"We use the hand to gently approach the animal," Fang said. But "this cat was having none of it, biting and hissing and the whole thing."

The shelter technicians left for about half an hour and tried again, he said. Again, Mistoffelees lashed out. Fang said the two technicians confirmed with a supervisor that the animal was violent; they then sedated the cat, checked for a microchip and a spay scar, and found neither — although Brooks said she had been spayed and declawed.

At that point, the cat was euthanized, about an hour from the time they first approached her.

Brooks' girlfriend, Vikki Gouker, went to his home to check on the cat the evening of June 28 and discovered her gone. She called the shelter the next day and left a voice mail message, but at that point the cat was already dead.

"Some of the things [Fang] described were unthinkable," Brooks said. "[Cages] and a hand-like prosthesis. You can't expect a cat to not go violent on you when you're doing those things."

Humane Society officials disagree.

"Normally, if a cat is at least somewhat socialized and you approach them, they're not hissing at you with their ears pinned back," said the shelter's executive director, Mary Leavens. "They're normally scared of the hand, and if it's inserted into the cage, they go to the side to get away. This one was biting it with its ears pinned back and hissing."

Inga Fricke, director of shelter and rescue group services for the Humane Society of the United States, said there is no general policy on holding and euthanizing animals. Policies and procedures, she said, are based on local and state law, and on factors such as the population of a shelter, crowding and staff.

Harford County code does allow for immediate euthanasia when an animal is deemed violent or dangerous.

"The definition of a dangerous animal is one that acts without provocation," said Brooks' attorney, Anne Benaroya, executive director of the Maryland Animal Law Center. "The key word there is 'without.' All of the actions taken — the stick, the way the cat is manhandled — are all provocation."

Lisa Morabito, programs manager at the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, said all cats brought there are held for at least three business days.

"If the cat is dangerous, then at the end of the three-day stray hold, we may very well put them down," she said. But, she said, it's not unusual for a pet cat to try and defend itself at first. "It's really unfair to judge in an hour how they would be."

She says even if the law let them put animals down right away, her shelter wouldn't. "At the end of the day," she said, "it could be someone's cat."

Fang said the shelter took in just over 3,000 cats in 2012. Of those, 581 were euthanized because they were feral, 637 were euthanized for medical reasons, 222 were put down because of their temperament, 65 were returned to owners and 876 were adopted. The remaining cats were either dead on arrival, given to rescue groups or put down because of lack of space or at the owners' request.

"We are talking about three people who see 3,000 cats per year. Everyone on our staff is dedicated, hardworking, and takes their job seriously," Fang said. "They are shaken up about this, as you can imagine. Certainly not as shaken up as Mr. Brooks is, but they don't take this lightly."

Aaron Tomarchio, who sits on the shelter's board and is also chief of staff to County Executive David Craig, said the rules about holding animals will be reviewed Friday at a shelter board meeting in light of the incident to get "a more firm policy or better define the policy."

"We advise microchipping, and we offer events and promote that for free or at low cost," Tomarchio said. "When you're in a situation where you've lost your animal, these types of things give us a better clue as to what the Humane Society is dealing with. In this case, it was very difficult to understand what they were dealing with other than what they viewed to be a potential threat to the population and the staff."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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