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Baltimore City

Eight years after her dog’s death in Baltimore Police custody, a woman’s fight for animal welfare continues

In the days after it happened, Sarah Gossard was thrust into a startling whirlwind of events.

Suddenly, local news reporters were blowing up her phone and showing up at her front door. So, too, did the Baltimore Police Department’s internal affairs division.

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It was 2014, and Gossard’s 7-year-old shar-pei named Nala had just died at the hands of Baltimore Police officers. Nala had escaped her yard in Canton and was running loose in the city when she bit the hand of a woman who tried to corral her.

Officers arrived and, after a struggle, snagged her with a dog pole. But then, an officer withdrew a knife and slit her throat. The courts decided he was not guilty of animal cruelty charges, heeding testimony that Nala might have been strangled by the pole before the officer’s slice.

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Soon after Nala’s death, Gossard had to make a choice: Would she let the story play out in the headlines — and eventually at the courthouse — without her?

“It was like: I can either shut down and sit home, or I can use this as a platform and raise awareness,” she said.

On Saturday, Gossard will host her 10th fundraiser in Nala’s memory — and the first since the coronavirus pandemic forced events online. This month’s event at Fells Point’s Luna Garden from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. will feature live music, vendors, a beer tent and a silent auction, with many of the items donated from businesses in Canton and around the Baltimore area.

“I’ve gone to different bars, restaurants, shops and asked them if they want to participate, and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, I remember that,’” she said.

The proceeds will be donated to Baltimore’s Charm City Companions, a nonprofit that helps vulnerable pet owners in Baltimore care for their animals by providing free transportation to vet appointments, free pet food and supplies, and more — mainly by going door-to-door, often in historically under-resourced and redlined communities, to ask residents what they need.

In the early years, Gossard’s fundraisers benefited the Maryland SPCA and other groups, but in Charm City Companions, she found a hyperlocal organization that could use a donations boost.

In a way, Charm City Companions and Gossard were meant to work together, says Annie Pruitt, executive director of the group. The same month that Nala lost her life was the first that Companions volunteers started knocking on doors in Baltimore.

“I’m in the trenches as an executive director, so it’s hard. I can’t do social media and this and that. So I’m trying to get more support,” Pruitt said.

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June marked the eighth anniversary of Nala’s death. The images flooded Gossard’s Facebook timeline — of dogs she’d never met standing beside signs with the message “#JusticeforNala.”

“It has stirred up a lot of emotions. I’m not gonna lie,” Gossard said. “But I have a great support system.”

‘Anything animal-related — we’ll try’

Sprawled in the shade of the tall trees dotting the courtyard, the tortoiseshell cat let out a strangled meow.

That’s Popcorn, the neighborhood cat in this section of Douglass Homes in East Baltimore.

As Pruitt peeled open a can of Friskies, Popcorn was suddenly sprightly. She lapped up the wet food from a waiting Tupperware container, which had likely been set aside by neighbors for this purpose.

Popcorn won’t be the only animal to benefit from Charm City Companions’ foray into Douglass Homes. There’s Misty, the gregarious orange tabby who lives with Christine Price and Steve Zen. And Cane, the nervous little Yorkie who belongs to Mia Johnson across the way.

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Zen said the resources from Companions would “most definitely” be a help, particularly given recent inflation.

“I’m doing all the saving I can,” Zen said.

When Pruitt arrived at Douglass Homes on a seasonable Thursday in June, she came well-stocked. She and a volunteer toted dog and cat food, puppy pads and cat litter into the front office, where they were met by Charlene Neal, the service coordinator for the housing authority who serves Douglass Homes.

Neal showed them to a set of cabinets in the common room, which could become a pet pantry — a place where residents can stock up on food, litter, collars and more.

That Thursday, Pruitt decided to go door-to-door as well, in search of pet owners in the complex who might benefit from a car ride to the vet or some extra supplies. At almost every stop, she and volunteer Carroll Wonson handed out magnets with their phone number, a line meant to provide just about any support an animal lover could need.

“We kind of think of ourselves as triage, like at a hospital,” Pruitt says. “Anything animal-related — we’ll try.”

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Maybe that means answering the phone to help someone talk through what to do when their animal falls ill. Maybe that means dropping off a donated air conditioner at someone’s home to help people and pets stay cool.

Charm City Companions was recently lent a large warehouse space in Dundalk’s Eastpoint Mall, a place they could keep a 26-pallet donation of dog and cat food and litter provided by Chewy.

“I really feel like it can grow into something incredible,” Pruitt said.

‘For the future’

Nala’s case was “eye-opening” for local animal rights advocates, said Katie Flory, community care and advocacy director for the Maryland SPCA.

“There were a lot of people in our community that were very angry because of their love of animals, but we also have to look at it from a police officer side: that they didn’t have training on it,” Flory said. “They did what they thought was best. So the best way that we can make change is to work with them to help them gain more knowledge for the future.”

After the incident, Flory, who also serves on the Mayor’s Anti-Animal Abuse Advisory Commission, helped coordinate a training course for city police officers, focusing on how best to handle animals in the field. It included discussions on animal behavior and on assessing environments to look for evidence that animals might be present.

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“Another really quick and easy thing is when they’re knocking on a door — if there’s a screen door — put their foot on that screen door because oftentimes, the dog just comes rushing and opens the door without the person knowing. So kind of simple things like that,” Flory said.

Many officers also received slip-on leashes to use in lieu of dog poles, which might be needed in some instances where dogs are behaving aggressively but not at all times, Flory said.

The specifics of the incident involving Nala were hotly debated in court, where officer Jeffrey Bolger was charged with various animal cruelty charges. Prosecutors cast Bolger as abusive, arguing that bystanders heard him set out to “gut” Nala after she resisted officers’ attempts to corral her. His defense team argued that he merely aimed to put Nala out of her misery when he sliced an artery on her throat and that she was already dead or dying by then, perhaps strangled on the pole used to capture her.

The defense even put ex-Maryland Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler on the stand. The Maryland Attorney General’s Office is conducting a review into the deaths in police custody overseen by Fowler during his tenure as medical examiner, after he testified on behalf of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin that the cause of George Floyd’s death was “undetermined” but that an underlying heart condition and drug use contributed. Such a review wouldn’t include Nala’s case, however.

Fowler — who agreed that he wasn’t accustomed to supervising or performing autopsies on animals — went against the veterinarian who examined the dog to argue that blood evidence and the appearance of her kidney might suggest she was dead before Bolger stepped in. He said determining her exact cause of death was difficult because her head was severed for a rabies test before the necropsy exam. He gave his testimony pro bono, he told the court.

The judge sided with the defense, and Bolger ultimately received back pay from the police department for the time he spent on suspension.

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Neither Bolger nor Thomas Schmidt, another officer who was charged in the incident but had his charges dropped, remains with the department, said spokeswoman Niki Fennoy. Bolger was forced to retire early from the Police Department, his attorney said at the time.

Baltimore Police Sergeant René Aguilera, who works in the city’s Western District, said encountering animals can be a common occurrence on the job, with a host of potential outcomes. After befriending Gossard, Aguilera was surprised to learn of Bolger’s actions that day in 2014, he said.

“I don’t understand why any officer would approach a hostile animal,” he said, especially after it had been captured.

Aguilera said he always tries to be mindful of an animal’s state of mind and how the arrival of officers might impact that.

“You show up with all this gear on. Your radio’s on. Your camera’s on,” he said. “It’s gonna freak out the animal.”

Aguilera, a self-proclaimed dog-lover, adopted a dog who he encountered while patrolling in the city a few years ago. Driving near Edmondson Avenue one day, he saw a little black figure darting in and out of traffic.

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The mangy pit bull was covered in sores and scrapes, but her temperament showed through, Aguilera said.

“I fell in love with her,” he said.

Animal control arrived, and she was taken to the Baltimore Animal Rescue and Care Shelter, while officers sought out a possible owner. After no one came forward, Aguilera adopted her and named her Ela.

But animal encounters on the job don’t always go so smoothly for police officers, Aguilera said. Sometimes, officers responding to calls step onto someone’s property and are met with an aggressive animal. Aguilera’s first step in these situations is to try to establish a barrier between himself and the dog, by using a chair, for instance. Bracing against the animal with his forearm is a last resort. Meanwhile, he starts trying to communicate with the owner, asking that they try to control their pet.

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“Either the owner complies, or they use [the dog] as a tool,” Aguilera said.

In the latter case, Aguilera says he tries to put distance between himself and the aggressive animal by backpedaling out of the home, for example. That’s when he might need to call for help from Animal Control.

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A Baltimore Police policy, dated 2017, calls for officers to contact Animal Control if a biting or attacking animal doesn’t have a current rabies vaccine or the attack was severe. According to the policy, Animal Control operators are tasked with “all required enforcement actions,” including seizing a dog or issuing a citation.

“It would have been nice if things went a different way,” Gossard said of the incident involving Nala in 2014. Maybe officers could have been more gentle in trying to approach her. She wasn’t ordinarily aggressive at all, so Gossard suspects she was terrified and desperate to defend herself against a group of strangers.

“But I’ve had the years to try to be at peace with it. And now that at least some good has come out of it with raising money — and I would hope more awareness — then I feel some sort of peace,” she said.

It took a few years, but Gossard did get a new dog. A shar-pei, just like Nala, named Rhino.

“That helped healing, too,” Gossard said.


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